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story.lead_photo.caption Spike Lee (left) directs Damon Wayans on the set of "Bamboozled." (New Line Cinema)

Art begins with intention.

It is an attempt to express an idea. A cat walking across a piano keyboard does not make art; a human being pounding on one might. The pertinent question to ask is "What do you mean by that?" A cat's answer will inevitably be insufficient. The human being might present a case.

This is basic stuff, but it may be worth thinking about. Intention is not everything, but it is important. We have, as a society, decided no one should wear blackface. This is now a rule. But it was not always a rule, and many years ago it was regarded as an acceptable practice.

Musicians performed in blackface as caricature of people of African descent to assure their white-skinned audiences of the superiority. They perpetuated negative stereotypes by portraying black people as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, criminal, cowardly and hyper-sexual. That is why they performed in blackface, to mock people.

But the lead role in Shakespeare's Othello is -- or was -- often performed by a white actor in blackface. While we could have a long discussion about whether or not Shakespeare intended Othello to be a play about race (he did, but it would still be a good discussion,) perhaps we can agree that most of the actors who have used heavy makeup to alter their skin tone to play the character were not doing so with the intent to mock Othello or black people in general.

One of the important ideas that Shakespeare is expressing in Othello has to do with the otherness of Othello -- he is a Moor navigating a world dominated by white folks. Somehow his African heritage must be signaled to the audience. Since Africans (generally) have darker complexions than white Europeans, the easiest way to let the audience know Othello is a Moor is to darken his skin.

We would not do this these days. Instead, we would probably cast Denzel Washington or Chadwick Boseman or Michael B. Jordan or another actor of African descent in the role. Most of us might agree that it's only appropriate to hire black actors to play roles like Othello in which the character's race is inherently important to the story being told. Some people might complain that this denies nonblack actors the opportunity to inhabit a rich and complex role -- and it does. But there are other roles that are not problematic for nonblack actors.

One of them is Iago, the villain of Othello, who is one of Shakespeare's most interesting characters -- perhaps more interesting than Othello himself. Some Shakespeare scholars think Iago embodies qualities audiences of the day would have associated with black people, that the character wears a "mask of whiteness." While Othello regards him as Honest Iago, the audience, allowed to know his hidden self, perceives Iago as a sociopath. He's often played as a virulent racist.

But there are other ways a white actor might portray Othello; Patrick Stewart played him surrounded by an all-black cast. Other productions have made Othello white and Iago black, or had black and white actors alternating in the roles. Maybe what is important about Othello is not his blackness, per se, but his otherness, a relative quality that might be expressed by any number of other means.

You might not like some of these ways of approaching the play. But maybe you'd agree that in a better world anyone could play Othello -- but in a better world, minstrel shows would never have existed. Maybe Othello would never have existed. There would be no need for it were there no murder and envy in the world. There would be no need for art.

The point is that there's a difference between a corked-up Al Jolson mugging his way through "Mammy" and Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier playing Othello in brown makeup.

Spike Lee, from a 2000 photo session for "Bamboozled" (AP)
Spike Lee, from a 2000 photo session for "Bamboozled" (AP)

In 2000, Spike Lee made a movie called Bamboozled about a TV minstrel show that puts its black homeless street performers in blackface and becomes a hit. (It was confusing at the time but has gained cultural currency over the years to the point that it feels like one of Lee's more incisive and important films.)

The difference between these applications is intent. Jolson, to be fair, was evoking a show business convention that, as ugly as it feels today, might have been accepted (or tolerated) by contemporary audiences. It was not as egregious as the intrinsic mockery of an upper-middle-class white boy wearing blackface to a fraternity Halloween party in the 1980s.

Welles and Olivier were, to some degree, seeking to give voice (and humanity) to a black character. By current standards, these portrayals are inappropriate and naïve but well-intentioned. And Lee was provocatively and ironically reclaiming black culture in an effort to illuminate societal hypocrisies and pose questions about identity, assimilation and racism.

Intention must be given weight.

Sarah Silverman (AP)
Sarah Silverman (AP)

Sarah Silverman was talking on Bill Simmons' podcast about losing a role in a movie because the film producers saw a clip from her old Comedy Central show The Sarah Silverman Program where she wore blackface. It is not hard to see why the producers would make this decision. Making movies is expensive and, all things being equal, it is safer to hire actors who won't bring negative attention to your production, who won't get you boycotted or canceled.

Now we have decided blackface is inappropriate -- it was inappropriate when I was in college in the '70s and '80s, which is why some political figures had trouble when photos of them in blackface during that period surfaced. Silverman said she regretted the skit, which started out with her character arguing with a black friend about whether it was more difficult to be black or Jewish in American society.

The sketch is apparently on YouTube where things live forever. Someone saw it, and Silverman was fired from the movie.

This sketch is not obscure, Silverman has talked about it before. And she says she doesn't "stand by it" that she's "horrified " by it. She characterizes it as using racism to expose racism and admits that it was wrong.

Obviously, it would be stupid -- or belligerent -- to perform such a skit today, I don't know that it was wrong to do it at the time. Leaving aside the execution of the skit -- it is not Silverman's best work; she can be brilliant and the skit isn't. It's obvious that her intent was not to mock black people but to mock the sort of reflexively liberal entitled character she portrayed on that show.

Silverman was making fun of not herself exactly but of the sort of character that casual viewers might have taken her to be. While you have to be a pretty unsophisticated consumer of popular culture these days to confuse the TV persona of a performer with the actual performer, it's obvious that plenty of people make those kinds of mistakes.

And plenty of others pretend to make that sort of mistake to advance their own agendas.

What Silverman did in 2007 seems incredibly stupid by 2019 standards. Yet it also seems kind of brave, an attempt to deal with issues that aren't always acknowledged. Intent isn't everything -- well-intentioned people can make grievous mistakes and miscalculations -- but it does matter. It has to.

Robert Downey Jr. (AP)
Robert Downey Jr. (AP)

About a year after Silverman donned blackface for her TV show, Robert Downey Jr. played a diva Australian actor who, in an effort to win an Academy Award nomination, wears blackface to play an American soldier in a war drama, a film within Ben Stiller's comedy Tropic Thunder. While some people were upset by this in 2008, a lot more controversy was generated by Stiller's character, a vapid and similarly striving actor who had, in a previous film, tried to win critical accolades for his portrayal of Simple Jack, a mentally retarded farm boy.

"... [I]n the context of the film I think it's really clear [we] were making fun of the actors and actors who try to use serious subjects to win awards," Stiller explained.

And I imagine that is how most sophisticated moviegoers received the film. Downey's performance is especially fine. I think the film does a good job of satirizing award-seeking performances and films. And that it is, at times, extraordinarily funny.

Much funnier than Silverman's blackface skit.

But perhaps neither the movie or the skit are OK anymore.

It's probably good that we are able to look back on things we did seven or eight years ago and wonder what we possibly could have been thinking. Anyone who thinks out loud in public ought to have bits and lines and newspaper columns that they would like to take back, to erase from the record. Why do some painters burn their old canvases?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend -- a member of the deceased comedian Bill Hicks' family -- gave me a special vinyl pressing of one of Hicks' last recorded concerts. She knew I was a fan. I saw Hicks perform in Austin a couple of times in the '80s. I had a couple of his records when he surprised me by dying in Little Rock in 1994. I didn't even know he was sick. I didn't know he was here. He was brutally young -- 32 years old.

My take on Hicks is that he was one of those beserkers who comes along once every couple of generations, the kind of person we usually assassinate or institutionalize. Hicks belongs on a shortlist of 20th-century American comedians who deserve to be celebrated as important artists like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

In his short life, Hicks managed to get a taste of whatever radiant, perfect and eternal thing lurks out there beyond the matrix. His comedy, however outraged and outrageous, was graced by a kind of Gnostic insistence on the illusory nature of the world. While he engaged his audience on an intellectual level -- he once described himself as "Noam Chomsky with ... jokes" -- the real message of Hicks was that we are more alike than different, that we are essentially one:

The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are ... It's just a ride, and we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money, a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.

But listening to this album of Hicks performing in London in late 1992, I wondered if he could stand by all the words he spat back then. There was so much anger.

A quarter of a century later, some of Hicks 'material seems ugly. But we all change, we all evolve. (To prove this, God made high school yearbooks.)

Sure, there is a line that we shouldn't cross, but to know where the line is we must occasionally -- and intentionally -- step over it. Artists take chances. Hacks don't.


Style on 08/18/2019

Print Headline: What is the intention behind the art?


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