A Part Colored By History

Mariane Pearl
Mariane Pearl, who is of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage, is played by Angelina Jolie in the film "A Mighty Heart." (By Francois Mori -- Associated Press)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007

So, let's see. In "A Mighty Heart," we've got Angelina Jolie, American, pale of skin and plump of lip, playing the part of the real-life Mariane Pearl, a French-born, brown-skinned, kinky-curly-haired woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage. Ponder the societal implications of Jolie sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig. Discuss: Is this the latest entry in the American canon of blackface --21st-century style?

Or does Jolie's color-bending turn as the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl herald a sea change in our racial consciousness? Is it a signal that, kumbaya, we really are the world, Hollywood truly is colorblind, may the best actress win? Does it matter if a visibly white actress plays a historical figure of (partial) African descent? If so, does it matter that Halle Berry is slated to play a real-life white politician?

Or is it all about the box office?

(Never mind. Of course it's all about the box office.)

In the blogosphere, photos and video clips of Jolie as Pearl serve as a sort of racial Rorschach test. There are those who use the B-word -- blackface -- in decrying Jolie's casting as the height of racial insensitivity.

"It irks me to see [Jolie] in the makeup and the hair," says Lauren Williams, who wrote about the controversy in her blog, Stereohyped.com. "Every fall, you hear about how on some college campus, white kids are having a pimps-and-hos party and painting their faces. People are ignoring that this is a very painful part of America's past."

Wrote another irked spectator on Imdb.com, a movie Web site: "I am screaming my head off about Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl, who is half-black."

But others argue that the Jolie naysayers are practicing reverse racism. Said a contributor on TheZeroBoss.com: "Mariane Pearl is mostly white . . . what are you practicing here, the one drop rule?"

(Jolie, it should be noted, claims some nonwhite ancestry. Her mother was reportedly part Iroquois.)

The debate is cast against the backdrop of the United States' troubled legacy of minstrel shows, where white actors slapped on burnt cork or shoe polish, the better to mock African Americans. Film stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor performed in blackface, as did actors in D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," using greasepaint and murderous stereotypes to reinforce America's worst fears about black men. Even as recently as 1993, actor Ted Danson donned blackface to roast then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg at the Friars Club.

Hollywood didn't confine this phenomenon to its depiction of African Americans. White actors including Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine have donned the brown-, red- and yellow-face, too, playing Native Americans, Latinos and Asians, usually to stereotypical effect. Then consider that Forest Whitaker darkened his skin to play Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," and the issue gets complicated: Does that count as blackface, or is it akin to Nicole Kidman's donning a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in "The Hours"? "Ultimately I believe this is about acting and finding the right person for the role, regardless of color," says Charles Michael Byrd, a multiracial rights activist and the author of "The Bhagavad-gita in Black and White: From Mulatto Pride to Krishna Consciousness."

"Could this be social engineering on the part of Hollywood? Perhaps. If, however, by doing so, the casting directors and the producers can nudge this nation's race-obsessed consciousness toward more of a colorblind consciousness, that's a good thing."

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