Modern Minstrel Shows: “Othello” and “White Chicks”
From out of racial misconceptions and prejudices, the minstrel show parodied African-Americans by accentuating their stereotypes. This week’s double feature comes out of the misunderstandings between the races seen in both high-art and low-brow comedies. Orson Welles’ blackface in Othello (1952) with Shawn and Marlon Wayans’ cross-dressing “whiteface” in White Chicks (2004) is a surreal and somewhat offensive combination.
Orson Welles worked on his version of Othello for years. He ran out of capital multiple times during filming, and there are several different versions of the final film in circulation. The version I watched was the one reedited by his daughter in the ’90s. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but like all Orson Welles movies, it is at the very least visually striking.
In the ’30s, Welles reportedly wore blackface in another Shakespeare production for the stage, and he returns to it here in the part of Othello. It looks pretty ridiculous, almost like a fake tan from a can, more fitting for Snooki or Pauly D than for the great moor warrior. Shakespeare’s Othello has great and meaningful things to say about race relations, but the message is lost on Orson Welles’ unfortunate decision to cast himself.
Welles plays up the contrast between light and dark, sometimes smothering Othello with cinematic darkness, whereas Desdemona on the other hand is enveloped in light. Just before Othello commits murder, he becomes no more than a silhouette; as he narrates his soliloquy, the camera plunges into total darkness. In the clip below, Othello explains his crimes, his face floating, isolated in the darkness.
Whereas the cinematography of Othello presents itself in shades and shadows, White Chicks is a bright, bubbly affair of colors similar to most low-brow comedies. Shawn and Marlon Wayans are FBI agents who dress up as white chicks in order to solve a kidnapping case. Though ludicrous comedy, the strange, grotesque girls they become remind me of something out of a horror movie. They look digusting, but everyone loves them — especially Latrell Spencer, a black basketball player (played by Terry Crews), due to the fact that they are “white chicks.” Take a look at this lovely date scene:
At the end of the movie, when Latrell discovers the Wayans’ characters true identity, he freaks out. “You’re not white!” he screams. A minstrel show turned on its side, parodying the excesses of socialite white woman who live in the Hamptons, White Chicks is surprisingly entertaining as far as bad movies go. Watch the racial commentary in this scene:
I’ll admit, this makes a pretty ludicrous double feature, but both movies are good in their own very strange way. If Orson Welles donned blackface today and played Othello there would be widespread outrage, but the minstrel tradition lives on in the Wayons’ masterpiece of crap.
Sick in the head and tummy, Kevin Munley should be dead. But he isn’t.