By Imani Vaughn-Jones
What is whiteface? I’m aware of its more violently offensive counterpart; black face, a form of entertainment deeply embedded within the history of American performance and theater, rooted in the act of wearing a culture as a costume. I’m very aware of blackface, and the way a nation profited off of the fact that the simple act of existing as a person of color was, to many, comical. Performers would paint their faces with black shoe polish, exaggerate their eyes and lips, modify their hair with either grease or wigs, and dance and sing the “joys” of living life on the plantation. The effects of these performances can still be in seen in American pop culture today.
Yes, I am acutely aware of Black Face, and his siblings Yellow, Brown, and Red Face. But when I think of the Face family, I’m not sure I’ve ever met White Face. I’ve heard of him, mostly decried by purple-faced conservatives claiming “hypocrisy” and “reverse racism” at innocuous enough films like ‘White Chicks,’ but I’ve never met him personally, and I’m not sure if he exists. In a world where we are constantly told that whiteness is what we should aspire to, that whiteness is the background against which everything else is measured, does whiteface even exist? A white person tanning their skin and texturizing their hair in an effort to look like another ethnicity is grossly misguided at best and next level racism at worst. But if a person of color were to go so far as to bleach their skin, dye their hair, and lighten their eyes with contacts, would we be able to claim the same thing when the entirety of our nation has been told that this is what we should aspire to look like? In a country that has constantly touted since its inception that “The White way is the Right way®,” can we even call whiteface “whiteface?” Or should we instead, look at it as the ultimate form of assimilation? An extreme, and final attempt at joining the race that has constantly said they were superior? And if a person of color chooses to engage in whiteface, can we even be mad at them? This final question is one the audience is forced to explore in Mtume Gant’s short film, White Face.
The film follows a black man named Charles who has decided to become the person he was always meant to be; a white man. Throughout the film, we watch Charles navigate through a series of different situations, from a run-in with the police to partying at a night club. The film is tough to watch, not because of violence or gore but because of Charles’ struggle. Regardless of your opinions on the content of Charles’ character, watching him as a person of color grapple with his identity so fiercely, so intimately, is hard to stomach. Though Charles acts in an extreme way, his actions stem from a question every black person in America has asked; What if? What if I pronounced my ‘R’s and ‘T’s? What if I strengthened my handshake? What if I stayed away from politics and wore the right brands and drove the right car and bought the right house, would it be enough? How far must I distance myself from “those kinds of blacks” before they stop seeing me as one? Charles’ journey is tough to watch because, in a way, we’ve all been on it. Perhaps we didn’t lighten our skin, but we straightened our hair. We intentionally stayed out of the sun. We pretended to be interested in a show, hobby, or politician we absolutely did not give a damn about because we thought it would make us closer. Closer to our white conversation partner. Closer to acceptance. Closer to not being seen as “one of them.” Closer, we prayed, to being seen as “one of us.”
I highly recommend White Face to both white and audiences of color. The takeaway, though different for each, is formidable and very much worth it. Gant has written a film that manages to be both emotional and intellectual and gives an incredible performance in the lead role. I had the chance to meet Mtume at LA LA Festival in Minneapolis, MN, and seeing what a joyful and kind-hearted man he is, contrasted with the moodiness of the character of Charles, only further illustrated his breadth and diversity as an actor. White Face is a must-watch as we navigate a not-so-post-racial society where people like Rachel Dolezal and Lil Kim are taking their racial appearance and identities into their own hands. It’s the beginning of a very important conversation.
The writer, director, and lead actor himself, Mtume Gant
You can watch White Face as well as read up on what Gant is working on next on his website here.
Movie stills courtesy of Mtume Gant
Imani Vaughn-Jones is the Editor in Chief and Founder of Super Dope&Extra Lit Magazine. She is an actress, playwright, and poet in the Twin Cities as well as a social justice organizer for people of color. Her inbox is always open for creative collaboration suggestions.
SDEL Mag: www.sdelmag.com Personal Instagram: @yourfirstblackgirlfriend
Photo Credit: Mtume Gant (Film Stills) | Missy Simon Photography