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2013 SIS Postgraduate Colloquium – Voices

film still blackface

Blackface in 1960s Italian Cinema: Antonioni, Pontecorvo and Pasolini

by Marco Purpura (PhD, University of California, Berkeley)

Is there an Italian way to blackface? And, if so, what is its specificity? Blackface has been traditionally understood as an American phenomenon that originated from vaudeville in the nineteenth century and then migrated to cinema in the early twentieth century. Broadly speaking, in blackface white actors paint their faces black and exaggerate their gestures to mock racial groups socially perceived as inferior, often of African descent. Stephen Johnson states that American blackface is “a consistent alteration of the performer’s body. This body had an applied black face created from burnt cork mixed with grease; it was black without shading and usually darkened to an artificial extreme. This basic makeup was occasionally interrupted by red (also white) greasepaint around the mouth, creating the appearance of artificially large lips”.[1] Two elements are therefore crucial for its definition: black makeup and the performer’s excessive dramatization of the character’s physical and psychological traits.

Recently, scholars such as Catherine Cole have shifted the attention to the transnational circulation of blackface beyond the United States, investigating its popularity in performances and films influenced by colonial cultures in places such as Cuba and Ghana, among others. This shift in focus leads Cole to consider blackface as a quintessentially colonial form rather than an American one.[2] In support of Cole’s argument, I would like to point out how blackface first appeared in Italian cinema precisely in colonial and pseudo-colonial narratives. For example, Bartolomeo Pagano played the African slave Maciste in blackface in Pastrone’s epic film Cabiria (1914). There, Maciste’s blackface is associated with extraordinary strength, displaying blackness as a racialized spectacle of physical excess. Later, under fascism, Jewish actress Doris Duranti played several racially mixed colonial characters in blackface and brownface in films set in the colonies, such as Romolo Marcellini’s Sentinelle di bronzo (1937) and Corrado Brignone’s Sotto la Croce del sud (1938). In these and other films, Duranti’s racial masquerade is associated with her characters’ unbridled passions.

Interestingly, blackface continued to be present in Italian cinema in different ways well after the end of Italian colonialism. Some of the most prestigious directors of Italian cinema from the 1960s on, Michelangelo Antonioni, Gillo Pontecorvo and Pierpaolo Pasolini used blackface in their films. Was this yet another aspect of Italian cultural belatedness in relation to the development of a postcolonial awareness? Or was it a conscious appropriation of a representational modality that critically signals the persistence of colonial legacies?

Karen Pinkus interprets Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) as an odd mix of collective amnesia about the fascist past and fascination with some of its formal features.[3] The film is partly shot within EUR, an area of Rome originally planned under fascism in the 1930s to host a World Fair. The purpose of the World Fair was to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the March on Rome and the greatness of the fascist empire. In the postwar years, EUR became a residential area for middle-class Romans, and this is how it is represented in the film. Vittoria (Monica Vitti) has a small apartment in EUR and so does her acquaintance Marta, a white British woman born and raised in Kenya, who moved to Rome around the time of Kenya’s independence from Britain. One night Vittoria visits Marta at her place. A curious Vittoria goes around Marta’s apartment filled with Kenyan souvenirs, trophies, and photographs, all signs of her colonial nostalgia.

Here the film suddenly introduces a bizarre sequence of racial masquerade with a straight cut to Vittoria in blackface, wearing a supposedly African costume and parodying an African tribal dance in Marta’s living room. Vittoria seems to be in denial of the racist aspects of her mockery, whereas Marta cannot stand Vittoria’s performance and asks her to stop, precisely because she recognizes the offensive nature of blackface and its meaning in the context of colonial cultures. Far from being a direct critique of colonialism, however, this short sequence exploits a fascination with Africa and blackness that further inscribes L’eclisse within a constellation of modernist and postmodern themes punctuating the whole film, such as functionalist architecture, the frantic world of finance and the anxiety of a nuclear threat.

If Vittoria’s blackface in L’Eclisse looks like a questionable, aesthetic divertissement, there are other films of the 1960s in which blackface is used as a critical trope that signals the persistence of colonial legacies. Pontecorvo’s Queimada (1968) tells the story of an imaginary Portuguese colony in the Caribbean, its struggle for political independence, and the afterwards of that independence. Renato Salvatori plays Teddy Sanchez, the first mestizo governor of the island after the revolution. Salvatori performs in brownface, a variant of blackface in which white actors use slightly lighter tones of makeup to play Latino, Middle-Eastern, or Asian characters. Sanchez is at the service of British agent Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando), an agent provocateur sent on the island to exert control on the sugar cane industry after the state’s independence from Portugal. Salvatori’s mestizo body, with his dark complexion and blondish hair, renders the tensions and stratifications of old and new colonial powers. As was the case with Antonioni’s L’eclisse, in Queimada the plot does not make any references to the history of Italian colonialism. It provides instead a universal allegory of how colonialism works, overcoming national boundaries and reaching out to international audiences.

It is worth mentioning that this mix of critical use of blackface and lack of reference to the specificity of Italian colonialism also characterizes some of Pasolini’s films of the 1960s. In his first film, Accattone (1961), the protagonist played by Sergio Citti is a marginalized individual living in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Rome, the borgate. In one scene, Citti plays a parody of the American blackface tradition by briefly appearing with a black makeup on while the diegetic music plays Saint James Infirmary Blues, thus suggesting an analogy between the living conditions in the Roman shantytowns and those in the African-American ghettos. In his films Pasolini uses blackface to signify the social marginality of borgatari as well as the exploitation of a global south across different cultures and histories. In particular, Che cosa sono le nuvole? (1967) shows a comic, trivialized staging of Shakespeare’s Othello (1603) set in a shabby theater of a borgata. In this version of the play, Ninetto Davoli performs the lead character in blackface while speaking with a thick Roman accent, merging the marginality of his borgataro condition with that of the Moor of Venice.

The Italian cinema of the 1960s provides an excellent case study for rethinking the transnational circulation of blackface beyond the United States. Traditionally employed in popular genres such as comedy and melodrama to convey discrimination and to signify racial otherness on screen, blackface and brownface curiously appear in Italian films by socially committed directors and auteurs of the 1960s. On the one hand, these films appropriate the racialised performances and inscribe them within a parodic and citational aesthetic. On the other hand, racial masquerade produces a universal allegory that problematically excludes any reference to the national imagery of fascist colonialism. This exclusion is even more striking if one considers how fascist colonialism had generated complementary racial representations, for example through the popular marching song entitled faccetta nera.[4] The use of blackface and brownface in these films thus suggests a complex understanding of 1960s racial representations as aligned with contemporary global critiques coming from postcolonial forces and movements, yet still unable to recognize the problematic continuity with Italy’s own colonial past.

Marco Purpura holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in Italian Studies with a designated emphasis in Film Studies. His research focuses on the representations of immigration in Italian film and media. His dissertation, ‘Immigration and Racial Masquerade: Narratives of Passing and Posing in Contemporary Italian Media’, analyses how narratives of immigrants passing as Italians and Italians posing as immigrants — a phenomenon he has defined as racial masquerade — constitute foundational tropes in media discourses about immigration in contemporary Italy. He has published essays and articles in various journals, including the Journal of Italian Cinema and Media Studies, California Italian Studies and Intersezioni – rivista di storia delle idee. He collaborates with Balthazar – Polo di Studi sul Cinema, Bergamo, and is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation.

[1] Stephen Johnson. “Introduction” in Burnt Cork. Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy, Stephen Johnson ed. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. pp.1-17:8.

[2] Catherine Cole. “American Ghetto Parties and Ghanaian Concert Parties: a Transnational Perspective on Blackface” in Burnt Cork. Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy, Stephen Johnson ed. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. pp. 223-258.

[3] Karen Pinkus. “Empty Spaces. Decolonization in Italy” in A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present, Patrizia Palumbo ed. Berkeley: California UP, 2003. pp. 299-320.

[4] For a discussion of the relationship between the faccetta nera theme and blackface in Italian cinema, see Maria Coletti, “Fantasmi d’Africa, dal muto al sonoro. Facce, faccette e blackface” in L’Africa in Italia. Per una controstoria postcoloniale del cinema italiano, Leonardo De Franceschi ed. Roma: Aracne editrice, 2013. pp.75-92.


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This entry was posted on March 12, 2014 by in Voices.
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