Leon Schuster: 'I don’t want us to laugh at each other, I want us to laugh with each other'

Leon Schuster. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Alon Skuy)
Leon Schuster. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Alon Skuy)
  • It was announced last week that Showmax would be reviewing its content for racial insensitivity.
  • This saw six films by Leon Schuster being removed from the streaming platform pending a review of the content.
  • Social media has been divided into two distinct camps since the announcement.
  • Blackface has a deep rooted racist history that dates back centuries.
  • Leon Schuster says "if this content causes anyone harm then I don’t want to do it".
  • Respected anti-apartheid producer Anant Singh says he was surprised at first that the films were removed but realises the sensitivity.

It’s been a stormy week for South African filmmaker Leon Schuster as his collection of comedic work over the years has come under scrutiny for racial insensitivity.

As the reach of the Black Lives Matter movement expands outside the borders of the United States important and long-overdue conversations around race are finally being addressed, unpacked, and discussed with the temerity they deserve. 

One strain of the conversations within the entertainment industry asks how racially insensitive content, and the use of blackface in the past, is being addressed within modern society. 

Online streaming services like BBC iPlayer and Netflix have taken immediate action and instantly removed shows like Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh from its platforms for using blackface.

On Tuesday, it was announced that four episodes of 30 Rock, including two featuring Jane Krakowski’s Jenna character in blackface, were removed from subscription streaming services Hulu and Amazon Prime, reports Vulture.

Tina Fey, creator and star of 30 Rock, wrote in a letter to the platforms: "As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation. I understand now that 'intent' is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologise for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for honouring this request."

Deadline reports that HBO Max took down the 1939 film Gone With The Wind due to its depictions of "ethnic and racial prejudices" and would add it back with historical context provided by film scholar Jacqueline Stewart via a new introduction that will appear before the film.

History of blackface

Blackface has a disturbing history dating back centuries and its implications are deeply rooted in oppression.

"The use of blackface was particularly prominent in the 1800s as a reaction to anti-slavery campaigns and was a means of mocking Black people. It played into attitudes and ideologies that underpinned transatlantic slavery and segregation," reports Digital Spy.

Jane Coaston of Vox writes: "Blackface is idiotic, and it is also tremendously racist, every single time it’s done, by [politicians], celebrities and comedians. Such a judgement does not require an examination of the inner workings of the human heart of the person wearing blackface. Such a judgement requires merely the willingness to look."

Jane argues further in her article that intent and the commonness of blackface does not defang it and that it warrants denouncing, whether it takes place now or in the past.

South African streaming service Showmax is doing just that in actively reviewing the content it makes available online.

Netwerk24 last week reported that Showmax was reviewing six of Schuster’s films for racial insensitivity.

Richard Boorman, head of communication for Showmax, confirmed to Channel24 last week that several films have been removed from the platform, pending a review of all content that could possibly be racially insensitive.

The streaming service is yet to announce a final decision on how it will deal with the content as it navigates the precarious position it finds itself in.

The films currently being reviewed include You Must Be Joking, You Must Be Joking Too, Oh Schucks…It’s Schuster, Sweet ‘n Short, Schuks! Pay Back the Money, and Frank and Fearless.

Leon Schuster responds

Leon’s voice sounds tired and defeated when I reach him on the phone on Wednesday morning. Although he’s still in bed, he’s been awake and has been doing interviews since 05:00 he tells me.

The comedian known for his jovial demeanour is much more reserved and cautious when speaking about the topic that has seen social media divided into two distinct camps – those that support Showmax’s decision and those that don’t see an issue with the content at all.

"I have to admit, I was shocked at first, but I’m willing to listen. If this content causes anyone harm, then I don’t want to do it," Leon says without hesitation.

He adds: "When the films were released, the cinemas were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people of all races, genders and ages that laughed and enjoyed the films. But the political climate has changed, and I don’t want to add fuel to the fire. When the people speak, I listen."

But that doesn’t mean Leon will stop making films. He says he still has a great love for what he does, and he definitely wants to keep making people laugh: "I won’t stop making films. That’s my purpose in life and I enjoy it and will continue doing it in a respectful way.

"I really don’t want to harm anyone. I don’t want us to laugh at each other, I want us to laugh with each other," he adds.

Anant Singh and Rob van Vuuren

Channel24 also reached out to producer Anant Singh, responsible for many of the most profound anti-apartheid films ever made in South Africa.

Anant, whose filmography includes titles such as Place of Weeping, Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country, worked with Leon on several films including Mama Jack and Mr Bones and its sequel.

According to the respected filmmaker, he was surprised at first that the films were removed so suddenly, but realises the sensitivity.

"I had observed Leon’s talent and success and had seen his films with audiences of all ethnic and race groups, who made their choice to be hugely entertained in movie theatres alongside each other.

"Many films and TV shows like Coming to America or Mind Your Language could also today be criticised for their stereotypical outlook.  When we released Mr Bones, the reaction was positive with audiences worldwide. At the time, our test screenings in London, Los Angeles and other markets with an integrated racial mix of audiences were rated excellent or very good by about 90% of the audience. The remainder rated it good or fair."

Anant says he is aware that the conversation around the topic is "quite polarised, with support and criticism for both arguments". He adds: "Leon is a very talented comedic actor, writer and editor who understands the genre and the exceptional comic timing that makes his films so successful."

Since news broke about Leon’s films being reviewed for being racially insensitive, comedian Rob van Vuuren has publically apologised for using blackface in Schuks! Your Country Needs You.

He said: "I made all sorts of excuses for myself at the time to justify doing it. I pointed to the diversity of the demographics of Leon's audience; I argued that his work was most powerful when it exposed white hypocrisy in the 'rainbow nation' and revealed the fears and anxieties of a white minority unwilling to relinquish its privilege. I convinced myself that any of the characters I portrayed would be from a place of love and respect."

The 43-year-old further wrote that, as a white father of a child of colour, he had failed to examine his own privilege and prejudice and, despite knowing which direction his moral compass was pointing, he had chosen to take the money and run in the opposite direction.

"I have a responsibility to myself and my daughter to be better. I apologise unreservedly for the hurt my actions have caused and for contributing to negative stereotypes from a position of power and privilege. I cannot change what I have done, but I can be mindful of how I can contribute to the conversation going forward from a position of empathy and humility." 

(Sources: Netwerk24, Digital Spy, Black Lives Matter, Vox, Vulture, Deadline)

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