Here is my summary of Richard Burt’s 2006 essay on the use of ‘blackface’ in the film Stage Beauty.
In the first two chapters of his 5 chapter-article “Backstage Pass(ing): Stage Beauty, Othello and the Makeup of Race”, Richard Burt details how the film Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre, 2004) sheds light on the issue of race by comparing it to the film Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998).
First, he exposes the parallels between the two films: Both are utilizing the ‘play-within-the film’ category of cinema, both engage in genre-mixing of Shakespeare adaptation and romantic comedy and both show signs of artificial acting and specific scene selections common to these kinds of films. Furthermore, Stage Beauty recycles two of Shakespeare in Love’s actors and employs both UK and US actors throughout. Burt explains, however, that no matter how similar in artificiality, Stage Beauty implicitly thematises the issue of race and criticizes the common, color-blind racism of transnational Shakespeare adaptations.
The first chapter details the ways in which Stage Beauty differs in dealing with the race: Somewhat confusingly, Stage Beauty seems to emphasize ‘whiteness’, with Claire Danes’ face being artificially illuminated on the DVD cover as well as being stylistically made up to highlight her ‘white features’. This leads to the question of significance in regards to making Othello the play-within-the film, and therefore having to make the protagonist wear ‘blackface’ and then failing to explicitly address this issue in any way. However, Burt argues that the film does this, strategically and more efficiently, by using implicit techniques. Burt criticizes previous attempts to integrate black actors in historically unfitting roles, which is what he calls “[…] export[ing] Shakespeare by recolonising post-colonial American Shakespeare” (55). By making use of ‘blackface’, alluding to a scene from Stuart Burge’s 1965 Othello, and utilizing cinematic methods to add meaning to ‘whiteness’ and ‘darkness’, Stage Beauty addresses the issue in a quite sincere way and therefore abstains from colour-blind racism.
In the second chapter, Burt extends on the first chapter’s assumptions by explaining that the film seems to engage in a type of self-parody: By highlighting its similarity to Shakespeare in Love and many other romantic comedies infused with Shakespeare citations, it shows its adversity to the “[…] present state of affairs” (57). This is done precisely by choosing Othello over other Shakespeare plays to be performed in the film, as well as disconnecting the love relationship in the play from the love relationship behind the scenes, and subtly mocking films like Shakespeare in love. This helps in pointing to the issue of race by putting itself in a position of being forced to use ‘blackface’. Burt notes, however, that, unfortunately, the use of these techniques also made it more likely that the film was not going to be as commercially successful as Shakespeare in Love. To sum up, Stage Beauty implicitly criticizes the habit of UK and US filmmakers of Shakespeare adaptations to attempt face-saving versions of colour-blind casting and cinematic techniques.
my first thought when I read the first few words of the essay was “omfg, another apologetic academic trynna justify unjustifyable shit”. Honest truth. I do feel like much of his argument is based on strange assumptions. But is that really a helpful perspective? I almost put down the essay and gave up. But I decided not to ignore people’s ideas and perceptions and to give it a chance and I must say that I do get some of the validity of the argument.
As I have stressed before…what is the point of ignoring perspectives? Just because it is a sensitive and politically incorrect issue, should we really just ignore it? I think the solution is to listen to all sides and to keep an open mind. And I know some of you may even want to call me apologetic for that. But guess what? I just want an actual solution to a problem and I cannot handle being told to censor myself to please unreasonable feelings.
I don’t think this guy is right. I think he is misguided. But that doesn’t give me the right to silence him. Unless it is blatantly racist, I don’t see why I should deny myself the critical thought and deny the world the right to free speech and thought.
HOWEVER, here is the other side: ALL THOSE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT EVEN GIVEN A CHANCE TO VOICE THEIR CONCERNS, THEIR VOICES ARE LEFT IN THE BACKGROUND, IF AT ALL APPARENT. Those voices are those of people not privileged enough to make a case for themselves in an academic setting, usually based on racial background. Once again, we are placed in front of a race and class issue which should not exist.
And yea…I completely support the side that says “as long as most of academia is white, it seems unfair”. How do we solve this issue?
By finding and focussing on the actual culprit, which is and always has been the government and its messed up system promoting hierarchy, interpersonal divisions and psychological oppression.
And then….well…then we go from there.
Burt, Richard. “Backstage Pass(ing): Stage Beauty, Othello and the Makeup of Race.” Screening Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century. Eds. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray. Edinburgh: EUP Ltd, 2006. 53-71. Print.