Is it blackface to portray a dark elf on TV?
In recent days, there’s been a broad cultural impulse to confront racism in popular entertainment, and specifically the use of blackface (i.e., non-black performers wearing makeup in an exaggerated caricature of black people). Episodes of 30 Rock and Scrubs have been pulled for featuring characters in blackface, a scene featuring blackface was cut from an episode of The Office, and Jimmy Kimmel apologized for using blackface in sketches on The Man Show. Moving beyond TV, some YouTube stars have apologized for using blackface in their videos.
Given the current cultural zeitgeist, I can’t say I’m too surprised by Netflix and Hulu’s decision to pull the “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of Community.
“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is often considered one of the best Community episodes. The episode’s storyline focuses on a side character nicknamed “Fat Neil” who has been consistently ostracized and insulted for his weight. Fearing that Neil’s become suicidal, the series’ main characters decide to cheer him up with a session of Dungeons & Dragons (his favorite game), and eventually have to come to terms with their own cruel treatment of Neil. By the episode’s end, even the villains are redeemed. What’s more, the episode is a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like to play D&D — I’ve often shared it with people who want to better understand how D&D works — and highlights the mental health benefits of playing games like D&D.
The controversy surrounds a scene — watch it here — where Ben Chang (arguably the series’ primary antagonist) attends the D&D session wearing black face paint. When another character, a black woman named Shirley Bennett, calls out Chang’s “hate crime,” he explains that he’s actually dressed as a drow, or dark elf, and proceeds to introduce his character, Brutalitops the Magician. Unfortunately for Chang, Brutalitops is easily dispatched and he’s forced to leave the game (and the episode).
While Netflix and Hulu’s decision doesn’t surprise me, some see it as an over-correction of anything that even possibly resembles blackface. (There’s already a Change.org petition for Netflix to re-add the episode.) And I confess, my initial reaction was along those same lines. Like many others, I think that “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is a great Community episode that highlights the series’ ability to use absurdity and meta-humor to tell stories that actually have depth. But more importantly, and at the risk of being pedantic as nerds are often wont to do, Chang’s face paint is technically not blackface: he’s not portraying a black person but rather, a member of a fictional race.
However, that’s muddied a bit by several factors:
- At least one of the episode’s black characters (Shirley) is shown to be uncomfortable with Chang’s costume. For Shirley, Chang’s costume is too close to blackface for her own comfort, though she doesn’t seem to mind so much after Chang’s explanation. (In fact, when Brutalitops later suffers a critical hit and gets decapitated, she expresses dismay at his death and Chang’s departure.)
- Later in the episode, Chang’s character is actually called “Blackface” rather than Brutalitops by Pierce Hawthorne, a character who frequently says racist things. (His racism is usually chalked up to his age, cluelessness, and upbringing, and is always called out and rejected by other characters.)
- Ultimately, Chang’s costume is yet another example of his generally selfish and callous behavior to everyone. As other Community episodes reveal, Chang’s behavior is often driven by his own desperate desire to fit in and be part of a group, a desire that he expresses in some terrible and awkward ways.
All that being said, the “blackface” scene is actually not that important to the overall episode. It could be removed à la the aforementioned Office episode without impacting the episode’s broader themes about acceptance and healing; in the end, it’s really just another chance to include some Chang outrageousness. (And if you still want to see Brutalitops in action, there’s always YouTube.) Another option might be to reinstate the episode with a disclaimer, as HBO Max recently did with Gone With the Wind. However, that might open a can of worms considering some of Community’s other potentially problematic scenes and characters (e.g., its treatment of the sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing, and ultra-politically correct Dean Pelton).
Ours is a time when people are becoming more aware of the inequities and racial imbalances in society, including our pop culture and entertainment. This includes the marginalization of BIPOC creators and artists as well as exaggerated and unfair depictions of BIPOC characters and ethnicities. On the whole, this growing awareness is a very good thing.
We should want to see BIPOC artists and creators be able to tell their stories, and we should want BIPOC characters and ethnicities to be depicted fairly and without relying on simple, reductive caricatures. To that end, calling out and canceling (to use the popular term) blackface is a good thing. But I doubt that 30 Rock, Scrubs, The Office, and now Community will be the only shows to receive similar examination and judgment. And the questions and debates — and controversies — surrounding BIPOC representation, and what’s acceptable in comedy and storytelling, won’t die down any time soon.
On a related note, I find it interesting that this is all happening while Dungeons & Dragons itself is reconsidering its treatment of drow and other “evil” races. In D&D, drow have dark gray or black skin, and with very few exceptions, they’re depicted as exceedingly cruel and arrogant. However, I don’t think there’s any evidence that Gary Gygax based the drow on stereotypes of black people when he introduced them into D&D back in 1977. Rather, they were inspired by European mythology (like so much of D&D) and Gygax simply used the color black to connote their evilness and otherworldliness. (Of course, using the color black to connote evil has been a common practice throughout history, albeit one not without problematic aspects. But that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother blog post.)