During this past Sunday’s Academy Awards, host Billy Crystal reprised his famous impression of Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr., while parodying the film “Midnight in Paris.” Crystal’s politically incorrect decision to appear in black makeup drew the ire of plenty. The history of white actors appearing in black makeup isn’t exactly a time-cherished tradition.
As a society, we are very sensitive to words, actions, and images that stir up memories of our nation’s long and ugly history of racism. An actor appearing in blackface is one of those images that touch a nerve. Since the Oscar broadcast millions have condemned Crystal for his apparent cultural insensitivity; however, contrary to popular belief, what Billy Crystal did this past weekend was not blackface.
The racist overtones of blackface stem from the 1800s when white actors darkened their skin to stereotype and caricature blacks for the sake of entertainment — that was the epitome of ignorance, insensitivity and blatant racism. Crystal simply did an impression of Sammy Davis Jr., which admittedly wasn’t that funny, but it wasn’t racist either.
According to a brief statement by Sammy Davis Jr.’s daughter Tracy Davis in the Hollywood Reporter, she didn’t take offense to it at all, and believes neither would Sammy.
“I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling,” Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that it wasn’t Crystal’s first time paying homage to the Rat Packer, who died in 1990. In fact, the iconic crooner was among Crystal’s most popular impersonations during the 1980s (see a clip from a 1986 HBO special below). “Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing,” she continues, noting that Saturday Night Live gave the imitation “legendary status.”
Sammy Davis Jr. was an adamant supporter of the civil rights movement, and although he lost an eye in a car accident, Davis was never blind to racism. If he gave Crystal his blessing back in the 1980s, then he obviously believed the impression wasn’t mocking an entire race. Blackface has a connotation of being demeaning of black culture. During Sunday’s skit Billy Crystal did none of those things.
However, this does pose an interesting dilemma: does the Davis family vote of approval make it okay, or is appearing in black makeup always wrong? Robert Downey Jr. earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in “Tropic Thunder,” appearing in blackface in an attempt to mock the fact that it ever existed. Was that wrong, too, or are we all just being overly sensitive?
It was interesting to take notice of the fact that many of the outraged viewers on Sunday night were white. We threw our arms up in disgust at Crystal’s audacity, which created controversy out of absolutely nothing more than a bad joke.
You can argue that maybe Crystal demonstrated poor taste. You can certainly make the case he wasn’t very funny. But before you cry racism, maybe listen to the opinion of Sammy Davis Jr’s family first.