Is Leon Schuster blackface?

2014-04-27 15:01

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He’s the most successful film maker in SA history. But is Leon Schuster culturally offensive? Roger Young is doing an academic study to answer this question

There has not been much academic work on Leon Schuster. In fact, it seems I’m the first person in UCT’s history to research public opinion on the most successful film maker in South Africa’s topsy-turvy cinematic history.

Schuster’s films regularly outperform the grandest US imports.

Millions of us, of all classes and races, make a point of seeing his films, yet seldom is there an outcry of Die Antwoordian proportions about a glaring obviousness.

Schuster’s films are choked with blackface (make-up used by a nonblack performer to play a black role) and cultural stereotyping, and yet there is mostly silence from critics.

He is categorised, even excused, as an “equal opportunity offender”. He is loved by millions. Is he some kind of comedic genius or a kind of racist villain?

Although cinemas do not gather box office data by race (thank the Lord), it can be extrapolated from the cinemas his films are screened at that Schuster sells massive amounts of tickets to a sector that should be offended by blackface – black people.

There are several possible conclusions here:

.?South Africans are not educated enough to understand how offensive blackface is;

.?Blackface does not apply here the same way it does in the US;

.?South Africans just don’t give a damn; and

.?LeonSchuster is not blackface.

From various cultural traditions involving ochre and white mud, through the Tweede Nuwe Jaar minstrel carnivals in Cape Town, John Matshikiza’s whiteface in Schuster’s There’s A Zulu On My Stoep, Yo-Landi Vi$$er blackfacing herself up for Fatty Boom Boom (is she mocking black people or mocking people who accuse Die Antwoord of blackface?) to artist Jamal Nxedlana’s 2013 performance Imibala Yocansi in which five women of different races were blackened and silently confronted an audience – South Africa’s relationship with blackface is more complex than the Al Jolson/US dynamic.

But this doesn’t leave aside the simple fact that in order to blackface, one has to first be white. Simply put, blackface is an act of mocking blackness.

Eighties radio personality Pip Freedman found fame from creating characters like Gatipie (coloured simpleton) and Philemon (black newsreader), whose failures were the point of much of the humour.

It’s obvious that both last year’s Cape Town Fish Market commercial (white man as African dictator) and the 2008 Outsurance ads starring Ashley Taylor (white man as black woman) were blatant blackfacing: white men painted black yet obviously still white men, reinforcing white stereotypes of blackness.

Which brings us very neatly to a publicity interview with Schuster and his co-stars for his most recent candid camera opus Schuks! Your Country Needs You.

He talks about the process of blackening up or, as he puts it, “disguising” himself.

He describes the five-hour process as an attempt to “hide” himself in order for the “gag” to work.

Arguably, that he often fails to hide himself could be more a product of his celebrity than of his whiteness.

The point here is that the very nature of Schuster’s comedy is that he is not seen as a white man making fun of blackness but rather as a black – or Indian, or coloured, or white – stereotype to provoke and make fun of people’s reactions to these stereotypes.

Does LeonSchuster do blackface? Quite obviously. Is Schuster blackfacing? This is not as clear. In interviews he implies that he is not, in fact a white man mocking black people, rather he is mocking white people’s reaction to black people.

The possible reason that Schuster gets away with blackface is in this stated intention to mock the stereotypical reaction to the stereotype.

He is still a white person pretending to be a black person, somehow managing to operate in a space of not-quite blackface while being continuously successful at the box office.

As problematic as that is, it’s quite a prank to pull.

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