Retroactive remedying: How can depictions of Blackface be torn down?

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After my weekly comfort viewing of Community the other day, I was alerted to the fact that Netflix had purged one of the comedy’s most absurd yet revered episodes, ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’. This episode featured Community regular Ken Jeong’s Spanish teacher Chang, who starts the episode dressed up in full-body black makeup with an accompanying white wig. Despite Community’s plaudits for being a ‘woke’ show and criticising the obvious parallels between Chang’s “dark elf” and the historically abhorrent tradition of Blackface, the episode was axed. ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ is widely considered one of the best episodes of the series, and currently has a 9.5 rating on IMDb. The removal from Netflix sparked a Twitter war, where many users pointed out the diverse show’s main focus during the episode is suicide awareness. Is full erasure a necessary step? 

Fans of Community were rocked by the removal of the celebrated episode containing alleged Blackface – Pictured: (left-right) Danny Pudi (Abed), Yvette Nicole Brown (Shirley), Joel McHale (Jeff), Gillian Jacobs (Britta), Alison Brie (Annie), Donald Glover as Troy – [Image credit: NBC Universal via Getty Images]

Over the last few months, episodes from numerous other big hit broadcasts such as 30 Rock, The Golden Girls, The Office, Scrubs and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have all retroactively succumbed to the editorial chopping block. Subsequently, many white actors also quit their voice roles as Black or mixed-race characters, including Family Guy’s Mike Henry and Central Park’s Kristen Bell.  

In a Radio Times interview in July, Idris Elba dismantled these acts of censorship, arguing “viewers should know that people made shows like this” and that to “mock the truth, you have to know the truth.” Viral Success Munya Chawawa agreed, saying that “racism in Britain has always been more subtle and insidious – we need those blatant examples to remind us.” He argues that this removal is just a new form of gaslighting for Black people and people of colour. 

Similarly, television writer Alanna Bennett, believes it is “just trying to Band-Aid over the history.” Bennett asserts that these purifications are only effective at erasing mistakes rather than acknowledging them. She goes on to state it “feels like trying to protect the legacy of those creators instead of actually trying to address what those episodes did.”

Stand-up comedian and writer Dane Baptiste equally illuminates the issues of representation which emerge from these incidents. Baptiste declares that the main problem “isn’t just the fact that you have things like Little Britain and Come Fly With Me… It’s the fact that two white men have been able to depict Black people in two shows and the BBC won’t even give one Black person a show.” 

A key lesson to be learned from these now outdated shows is the dearth of opportunities for emerging Black stars in British television to portray diverse, complex characters. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is an excellent example of the latest step in this beneficial direction – a step well over 20 years in the making. 

Coel’s I May Destroy You examined multiple contemporary issues, including Black identity – [Image credit: BBC]

Certain shows such as AMC’s Mad Men appears to have taken a different approach in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Recently, I came across the series 3 Mad Men episode where John Slattery’s Roger Sterling is in obvious Blackface. The solution the creators took was to disclaim ahead of viewing: making audiences aware of the racist content. In an official statement, Mad Men’s production company Lionsgate stated that they chose to leave the scene in as they want to expose “the injustices and inequities within our society“. 

HBO Max also initially came under fire for removing infamous epic Gone with the Wind due to its racist characterisation of Black Americans. However, HBO Max then re-uploaded the film with both a disclaimer about the racist content and a supplementary historical documentary where scholars discuss the film’s impact. 

Clearly, the way forward is not outright censorship. The questionable content instead needs either an apt preface which educates audiences on the wrongful history or an accompanying apology. Now more than ever, these incidents are showing the need for us to expose the flaws and racist stereotypes manifest in numerous artistic industries. Past events instigate activists to keep sight of goals of greater representation and attainment of an increasingly diverse world of television and film.

Image: [Variety]