By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008
When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president last year, some observers questioned whether the senator from Illinois was "black enough" to embody the hopes and aspirations of African Americans.
Now a variation on that theme has emerged: Is Fred Armisen, who is not African American, "black enough" to embody Obama on "Saturday Night Live"?
Debate over that question has been pinging around the Internet since Armisen, a veteran cast member, donned darker makeup to portray the Democratic candidate for the first time Saturday. Armisen played Obama opposite Amy Poehler's Hillary Clinton in a sketch satirizing the supposedly cushy treatment his candidacy has received from the media.
"SNL" impresario Lorne Michaels said yesterday by phone that he thought the sketch played so well that the show intends to air another Obama/Clinton debate spoof tomorrow night, with Armisen and Poehler reprising their characters.
Nobody much cared about Armisen's racial background (he is of white and Asian heritage) when he played Prince and Steve Jobs during seasons past of the NBC show. Nor did it seem to matter that "SNL's" Darrell Hammond, who is white, has impersonated the Rev. Jesse Jackson for years. Or that decades ago on "SNL," Billy Crystal played Sammy Davis Jr.
But in 2008, Obama isn't just any politician or celebrity. Which is why Armisen's DNA became something of an issue when he became "Fauxbama" in "SNL's" first show back since the writers' strike ended this month.
Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune put the question bluntly: "Call me crazy, but shouldn't 'Saturday Night Live's' fictional Sen. Barack Obama be played by an African-American?" Ryan went on to conclude: "I find 'SNL's' choice inexplicable. Obama's candidacy gives us solid proof of the progress that African-Americans have made in this country. I guess 'SNL' still has further to go on that front."
Hannah Pool, a writer for the Guardian newspaper in Great Britain, suggested the whole setup had "minstrel" overtones.
"Casting a black actor wouldn't have guaranteed the quality of the sketch, but it would have made the whole thing a lot less shoddy," Pool wrote. "Let's get one thing straight. The moment anyone starts reaching for 'blackface,' they are on extremely dodgy territory. Anyone who thinks it's either necessary or, for that matter, remotely funny to black-up needs to have the gauge on their moral compass reset."
TV Guide, on the other hand, called Armisen's impression "surprisingly subtle."
The Obama portrayal has given critics a chance to make a second claim about "SNL": that it under-employs African American performers. When it began looking for someone to play Obama, the show had few alternatives. This season, "SNL" has only one black cast member, Kenan Thompson, who bears little resemblance to the tall, lanky senator. A biracial "SNL" veteran, Maya Rudolph, has not returned to the show since the strike began Nov. 5.
Clearly, we're in racial Rorschach territory again: Where you stand might be a reflection of where you came from.
Michaels said that the show auditioned "four to five" actors for the Obama role, including Thompson. And the winner, he says, was based on merit. "When it came down to it, I went with the person with the cleanest comedy 'take' on" Obama, Michaels said.
Michaels said he liked how Armisen caught the tilt of Obama's head, the rhythm of his speaking style, "the essence" of his look. "It's not about race," Michaels insisted via phone. "It's about getting a take on Obama, where it serves the comedy and the writing. . . . Believe me, when we read 40 or 50 pieces [for the show] on Wednesday, no one says, 'This is a very good way of getting our political points across.' We're simply asking ourselves: Is it fresh? Is it funny? Fred just had best take on Obama."
Criticism aside, Armisen will continue as Obama through the rest of the campaign, Michaels said.
The Obama campaign yesterday declined to comment on the show or on Armisen's portrayal. Obama appeared on "SNL" in October.
But clearly the incident has raised eyebrows.
Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, says viewers might have a different reaction if the roles were reversed. What if, he says, "SNL" had cast a black woman to portray Hillary Clinton? "Do you think there's ever going to be a day when we start casting Queen Latifah to portray Princess Diana?" he asks. "We just don't have the same representations going in other direction.
"If we had as many examples of black actors playing white figures, no one would need to discuss it. But when you have a figure as historically important as Barack Obama . . . people can get mighty protective of his image."
Michaels urges that viewers be patient. "What happens with our political characters is that they start out as impressions and they end up as characters," he said, citing Dana Carvey portraying George H.W. Bush, Hammond as Bill Clinton and Dan Aykroyd as Jimmy Carter, among others. "It will evolve."