It’s such a coincidence that this story made its way to me today as I had an in-depth discussion this morning with a dear friend regarding what we deem to racist as opposed to the intent of the actions. The action in this instance is a video that has emerged of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 4 contestant Willam Belli appearing in blackface in a parody of the Oscar-nominated film, Precious.
An anonymous source tipped us off to the situation and wanted to expose the fact that Belli, who goes by the name of ‘Willam,’ has been trying to scrub away his ‘racist” social media past by deleting his previously posted content. Our source also brought to our attention that Willam attempted to hide the blackface video and his alleged past racist tweets from his Twitter page just hours before the Daytime EMMYS aired. Willam was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Digital Drama Series.
I have lost count this week of celebrities who donned blackface in their past, and then saw the photos surface. Jimmy Kimmel is the latest and Willam is seemingly just another to add to the list– and no shade, though he’s not even really that famous.
As an African American man, though, and one who is vehemently against blackface and such associated caricature representations of black people, I feel compelled to ask is there adequate space for ‘blackface” in modern entertainment if it is contextual to a bigger conversation about race?
Just hear me out…
The initial news that Willam performed in “blackface” was concerning on the surface, but when I saw the video, I wasn’t sure, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It appears to have been part of a scene from a low-budget film, called “Bluberella,” in which an obese white girl falls asleep and has a dream that she is in the movie, “Precious.”
Willam parodies the character of Precious’ mother, played brilliantly in the Oscar-nominated movie by Mo’nique. In essence, Willam mimicks Mo’nique, and he’s not wearing the soot-black, shoe polish makeup of minstrel shows but rather a weird brownish color of some kind to emulate a black character. He looks like he has a tan at best.
Without seeing the whole Bluberella movie or the context of the scene, I cannot exclaim that it shouts racism. I don’t know if I agree if the mere act of darkening one’s skin to portray a character of a different ethnicity, should be immediately categorized as “racist” if we don’t have a clear picture of the context.
Take, for example, the classic television shows All in the Family and The Jeffersons. Show creator Norman Lear did not shy away from Archie Bunker or George Jefferson dropping N Bombs, or Archie Bunker’s blatant homophobia by calling gays “He-She’s.” Lear also did not shy away from blackface as was presented in season 4, episode 14 of “All in the Family,” when Archie tries to get out of a Blackface performance at the last minute:
The purpose of that episode was to highlight the ridiculousness of racist ideology and redemption. Archie, up to that point in the show, was seen as an unsympathetic character toward black people. Then suddenly, finally, he understood there was something not right about the representation of blackface and tried to fake being sick to get out of it. It’s a terrific episode still today.
Another example is the 1989 ‘Rowdy Girls’ episode of Designing Women in which Suzanne (Delta Burke) is called out by the other girls for wanting to darken her skin in their performance as The Supremes. That would set off a firestorm today, most likely. At that time, though, Suzanne walking out on-stage in blackface was purposeful as the show contained serious dialog regarding race relations with the other girls, and Anthony – the show’s singular black character, expressing dismay with Suzanne’s decision.
Brilliantly, when the Supremes skit begins, Suzanne ends up chasing the rest of the group around the stage as they try to avoid her during the performance. Comedy gold and clear in its statement.
These were profound teachable moments that used blackface as a tool to make America face its racist past. The question though becomes, was the very use of blackface, a racist act in itself? I don’t believe so, given the context.
In contrast, Tina Fey is now under fire for demanding that NBC remove and lock away multiple episodes of the hit show 30 Rock. The episodes in question feature Jon Hamm and Jane Krakowski in multiple, gratuitous blackface scenes, seemingly just for frivolous laughs, even in one skit parodying the minstrel show Amos and Andy. Fey, the show’s executive writer, is getting dragged all over Twitter as many are calling out that these blackface shows, which she wrote, aired as recently as seven years ago.
So what is the great revelation over at NBC, now? Did Fey not know in 2013 that exploiting blackface simply for comedic fodder was considered offensive?
Nope. Leave them in, and let Tina Fey answer as to why she thought blackface was acceptable or funny in multiple episodes. https://t.co/Ivb0A3eYcN
— Renée Graham 🏳️🌈 (@reneeygraham) June 23, 2020
Now back to Willam, though, let me be clear; his mess of a ‘Precious’ parody in Bluberella is hardly on par with any performance aforementioned, and I have no idea if there is a more critical reason as to why he played this role rather than a black actress play it. Without that context, I’m not so interested in jumping on the “Cancel Willam” train. It was just a mediocre project and execution overall.
I must say, though, I did not find it offensive. All I saw was a lousy, zero-budget production, with Willam delivering an embarrassingly bad performance in brown makeup – with no reason or purpose. Even if he had done it in ‘purple face,” it would have been equally as hideous. Thus far, Willam has not commented on this scandal, and I’m not sure how he made out with that EMMY. Still, at the very least, I hope he has learned the severe implications that come with trafficking in racist tropes and stereotypes of the past – unless doing so to enlighten and educate as it pertains to ending the injustice of racism.
In fairness to Willam, this performance seems dated back to nearly a decade ago. Today, and in more recent years, his social media presence seems to suggest he is genuinely aligned with the fight for racial equality and the plight of Black Lives Matter.
Have a look at Willam’s peculiar ‘Precious” performance:
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.