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Streaming giants and the purge of blackface: making an effort or missing the point?

4 mins read

George Floyd, an African-American man, was murdered in Minnesota on May 25 at the hands of a police officer. Since then, the global traction for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased, with international protests against police brutality and increasing demand for the end of racial injustice not only in the USA but globally.

With pressure being put on politicians, companies and celebrities to take action, the entertainment industry has responded with a wave of removing content containing blackface from various streaming services. But an important question has been raised: is this an act of taking accountability or burying the past?

“Blackface” is a term for the use of dark makeup on a non-black performer to portray a black character in a way that usually relies on racial stereotypes, in order to make a mockery of black people. It is a racist technique which has a long history in entertainment.

In the face of the Black Lives Matter protests, an almost unanimous decision seems to have been made by streaming services including Netflix, HBO, Hulu and BBC iPlayer to remove such content. Numerous series and films such as Community, The Office, Peep Show, Gone with the Wind, Little Britain and Come Fly with Me have either been edited or fully taken down to remove content which contains blackface or is otherwise racist.

Blackface in “Little Britain.” Credit: BBC

However, not all streaming services and channels have been following this approach of purging or editing content. Unlike Netflix, Channel 4 made the decision not to remove a blackface scene from an episode of Peep Show, explaining the decision with the following statement:

“We understand the strong feelings provoked by some of this content but we do not believe that erasing our creative history is a quick fix for the issues affecting our society today. Channel 4 is committed to inclusion and diversity and opposes discrimination in any form and therefore, having reflected deeply on this subject, we are undertaking a review of the principles governing how we handle historic programmes across our platforms.”

The approach of removing racially insensitive content has been criticised for avoiding accountability. Among the critics is TV writer Camilla Blackett, who has taken to Twitter to voice her opinion on the matter. Blackett argues that the removal of blackface from streaming services is only helpful to “creators trying to hide their past mistakes.”

Instead, Blackett supports the decision by Warner Brothers to place an informative statement at the start of their old cartoons, arguing that it is more effective as it raises awareness while still holding the creators accountable. Blackett also responded to The Simpsons deciding not to use white actors to voice minorities anymore, simply saying “We. Just. Want. Police. To. Stop. Killing. Us.” Furthermore, she pointed out their hypocrisy as “they historically run an all-white all-male writers room.”

The global support for Black Lives Matter continues with protests all over the world. Social media being used as a tool to spread awareness about racial inequality and spread petitions to help bring justice to victims of police brutality.

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other African-Americans, the actions taken by the entertainment industry appear to many as virtue signalling and pandering. As said by Malcolm X during the civil rights movement: “The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice.”

Featured image: ©AFP

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