Many of you reading this will probably assume that the title is in reference to Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone in the upcoming Hollywood film Nina. It saddens me to say that although very much applicable, no, that is not what I’m referring to here. The title, in fact, is the comment that accompanied the below video when it was posted by a friend on my Facebook wall.
Please watch before you continue reading (if you haven’t seen it already).
From what I gathered (after forcing myself to watch it all the way through, a task that proved painfully uncomfortable), the video was meant to shed light on the lengths people will go to steal (?). But what stood out to me was the message to “not judge a book by its cover”. At least that’s what I think they were trying to say. I’m still a little confused.
Playing the “starring” role (according to the video’s original caption) of South Sudanese “James” is – a North Sudanese man in blackface.
Black. Shoe polish. Blackface.
It took me three seconds for my brain to process what my eyes were experiencing. By the tenth second, I had pressed pause and walked away from my computer. Unable to wrap my mind around what I had just seen, but sure that it hadn’t gone unnoticed, I came back and clicked on the comments section of the video.
Out of 165 comments, only 3 had mentioned the blackface. To one man who pointed out the prejudiced and offensive effects of opting to put a character in blackface rather than simply casting a South Sudanese actor, one commenter responded by saying, “Inta insan salbi” [you are a negative person]. To another who added a link to the Wikipedia entry on blackface, someone wrote, “This is an accurate representation of South Sudanese people, and the actor did a good job” (I’m paraphrasing). In fact, there were quite a few comments commending the actor on his performance, including one commenter who wrote, “Alzol alaswad mumtaz” [the black man was excellent].
This was five hours ago. As I write this, the comment-count has risen to 250, a whopping 12 of which admonish the use of blackface. The rest are varying degrees of congratulatory, with replies to objecting comments being surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) tone deaf, if not outwardly offensive.
It took me all five hours to calm down, three of which I spent doing a combination of hollering at no one, banging my head against the table, and cupping my mouth in horror. Dramatic? Perhaps. I was surprised at my own visceral reaction. Watching the first ten seconds (and subsequently the rest of the video) felt like standing spectator while someone gets publicly humiliated.
Here’s the thing: I’m positive that it was not the intent of the creators to do this. In fact, the message of their short video is one to be applauded. To give people the benefit of the doubt and do away with the destructive stereotypes we believe of others is a bold message that is sorely needed in our society.
But the execution, in ten seconds, erased any positive impact the video intended or could have had. Having “James” be played by a man in blackface, combined with the over-the-top acting style that can only be described as buffoonery – particularly when none of the other characters were in any way exaggerated – left me wondering, “What are they really trying to say here?”.
Let us, for a moment, disregarded the blackface (WHICH IS SO HARD TO DO HOW ARE YOU ALL OKAY WITH THIS). If the intention was to dismantle stereotypes, why couldn’t James speak “standard” Arabic? That would have been a nice challenge to the public’s preconceived notion. Also, why was James the only character providing comic relief in the video? Why couldn’t James be a regular South Sudani dude, instead of a caricature of one?
If the intent was to dismantle stereotypes, then shouldn’t we have not relied on the same stereotypical portrayal to present a character of South Sudanese origin? Have we not grown tired of the Junubi jokes, the 7afsa jokes, the Adarob jokes, with their farcical accents and setups?
But I can understand the creators’ defensiveness when being called out, particularly since there was (I think) no ill-intent behind the use of this…… horrible…. cinematic… prop? I don’t even know what to call it.
It’s hard to hear criticism of your work, and creatives are like artists – we’re sensitive about our shit. However, instead of accepting that maybe, just maybe, there was something to the comments being left and links being shared of the disgusting purpose and history of blackface in cinema, they took it as “haters gonna hate”.
I thought, perhaps the history of blackface is too far removed from the Sudanese frame of reference. We (“dominant culture” Sudanese) haven’t experienced the types of things that blackface represents, so it’s difficult to comprehend.
Then I remember all the Arab shows that portray Sudanese characters as idiots and buffoons – Arab men in blackface mimicking the Sudanese accent – and I think of the outrage we (“dominant culture” Sudanese) feel and express when we see these portrayals. And I know there is no excuse for this video.
Like it or not, in jest or not, intentional or not, your work has power – it speaks for and about you. How you present your message is important, and as such it is essential to explore all the avenues before you settle on a direction, because one wrong turn can destroy all your hard work. Before you claim your audience to be haters and Negative Nancy’s, ask yourself what about your content could have caused them to react this way. Critique is not always meant to demoralize; sometimes it is useful – sometimes it is necessary.
If the creators of the video (and the vast majority of their audience) truly see no issue with their portrayal of Junubi James, then I humbly ask them to show it to an audience of their South Sudani peers.
The (comical) irony of the opening scene – with “James” sitting next to a shoe shiner who, as the two main female characters walk by, accidentally rubs shoe polish on his arm – is not lost on me.