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the take

The Summer of Brownface

Outside of color-blind Shakespeare adaptations, cross-race casting has been one of Hollywood’s obvious taboos for decades now — a no-no so basic it didn’t even merit discussion. No more: Enough Hollywood stars are enthusiastically applying bronzer in 2008, either for a quick gag or for a serious leading role, that we’re forced to hesitatingly declare this movie season the Summer of Brownface.

Click here for a slideshow on the Summer of Brownface.

There are plenty of great oldies tainted by cringe-worthy ethnic impersonations, like buck-toothed Mickey Rooney shrieking his way through Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Charlton Heston occasionally remembering to roll an “R” as a Mexican in A Touch of Evil. But by the time the nineties era of the Sensitive Epic rolled around, it was customary to expect that, say, the Native Americans of Dances With Wolves would be played by actual Native Americans and not rouged Italians.

Not so in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, opening tomorrow, where Adam Sandler plays an Israeli and Rob Schneider an Arab; both have seemingly taken a dip in the same substance used to honey up Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart. And Mike Myers’s The Love Guru is quite possibly the first Hollywood comedy entirely devoted to tittering over turbans since Peter Sellers played Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party, from 1968. Ben Kingsley, naturally, shows up to meta-travesty his own half-Indian heritage, and by extension his Gandhi role, with a cameo as Guru Tugginmypudha. (Should the homophonic hilarity of that name prove too subtle, there’s also Guru Satchabigknoba.)

Kingsley is also onboard for the just-announced Prince of Persia, the cast of which — unveiled in the past week — includes such notable Persians as Jake Gyllenhaal and Alfred Molina. Nor is the trend limited to Hollywood blockbusters. In the indie thriller Stuck, out now, ethnic Estonian Mena Suvari rocks the cornrows to play a character based on a real-life black woman. On the small screen, meanwhile, it’s a fairly safe bet that the two-month overlap between the general-election and the TV-production cycles will bring us a lot more Fred Armisen as Barack Obama come September.

And none of the above, of course, is even close in sheer audacity (and, let’s admit it, comic potential) to Robert Downey Jr.’s full-blown blackface in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. Stiller himself, interestingly enough, previously did not one but two throwaway blackface bits in Zoolander (watch them at 3:31 and 6:00 in this odd YouTube distillation of the film).

Why has brownface suddenly become more common? Perhaps we simply didn’t notice when the taboo began to expire, sometime around 2003’s The Human Stain, with its almost Dadaistically ludicrous casting of Sir Anthony Hopkins as a black man passing for Jewish. (Reader! Anna Deavere Smith played Hopkins’s mom!) In the age of Barack Obama, the idealistic interpretation is that it’s simply not a big deal, and what we’re witnessing is Hollywood’s unusually astute reaction to the onset of the post-racial society. (In the future, everyone will look like Tan Adam Sandler!)

A more cynical explanation for the green-lighting of The Love Guru and especially Zohan is the delayed box-office aftershocks from Borat: If Americans were ready to laugh at a Hebrew-speaking British Jew pretending to be a Russian-speaking Kazakh oaf, then why not fake Arabs and Israelis? If Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming Bruno is a success, we can expect Will Ferrell and/or Owen Wilson as a Teutonic sodomite by spring 2010.

If you look closely at the 2008 crop of cross-race performances, however, they all have something in common that Old Hollywood didn’t. Something more sickening, in a way, than outright minstrelsy. They have excuses.

Downey Jr.’s character is an actor, you see, a white one: “I’m a dude playin’ a dude disguised as another dude,” he drawls in the trailer, massaging his vowels like Samuel L. Jackson. His blackface is a comment on blackface. Mike Myers’s Guru Pitka? Please, he’s an American who was merely “raised by gurus.” Suvari’s cornrows? “I think that we felt that it would be, like, Providence, Rhode Island, with a mix of cultures,” the actress explained to Premiere magazine. And when Fauxbama raised some eyebrows, SNL was quick to use Fred Armisen’s own “exotic” background (Venezuelan-Japanese) as a shield. No ethnic vaudeville here, just good-natured biracial-on-biracial ribbing! In other words, nobody involved is willing to say that what they’re doing is, in fact, what they’re doing — and, as a direct result, everyone ends up looking a little ashamed.

Perhaps there’ll be less hemming and hawing if cross-race casting ever becomes a two-way street (the stultifying White Girls notwithstanding, the only such performance that readily comes to mind is Jeffrey Wright as a Latino in Shaft). For now, at least, it’s clear how the embarrassment known as Jennifer Hudson’s role in Sex and the City came to be. We bet Michael Patrick King originally wanted a blonde starlet to play a sassy back-talking assistant – but they were all busy playing black women. –Michael Idov