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Billy Dee Williams, pictured in December 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

Actors should be allowed to wear blackface

April 9, 2024

By Jack Guy, CNN

(CNN) — Actor Billy Dee Williams has said there is nothing wrong with performers wearing blackface, because “if you’re an actor, you should do anything you want to do.”

Speaking to Bill Maher on the “Club Random” podcast, published Sunday, conversation on the issue began with 87-year-old Williams discussing White actor Laurence Olivier’s performance as the titular Black character in the 1965 film “Othello.”

Although Olivier wore blackface, Williams said he thought it was a “really interesting” performance.

“When he did Othello, I fell out laughing,” he said. “He stuck his ass out and walked around with his ass, you know, because Black people are supposed to have big asses… I thought it was hysterical. I loved it. I love that kind of stuff.”

The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century.

White performers darkened their skin with shoe polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically “Black.”

The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on plantations in the Southern United States, depicting Black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The performances were intended to be funny to White audiences. But to the Black community, they were demeaning and hurtful.

Maher then said that Olivier wouldn’t be cast in the role now.

“Here’s the thing: today, they would never let you do that,” he said.

Williams then asked why, to which Maher responded: “Blackface?”

Williams insisted: “Why not? You should do it.”

“If you’re an actor, you should do anything you want to do,” he said. “As an actor, whatever you think you can do, you should be able to do it,” he said.

Maher then made the point that Williams “actually lived in a period where you couldn’t do that, where you couldn’t play the part you should’ve played,” in a reference to segregation in the US.

Williams, who is best known for playing Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” franchise, pushed back.

“But it didn’t matter,” he said. “Of course it happened but the fact is, you discuss it. The point is, that you don’t go through life feeling like, ‘I’m a victim.’

“I refuse to go through life saying to the world, ‘I’m p*ssed off.’ I’m not gonna be p*ssed off 24 hours a day.”

In an earlier part of the interview, Williams also mentioned his desire to be recognized as an individual.

“If I’m going to be creative, let me be creative as an individualist. I don’t want to do anything based on this whole idea that ‘you’re a Black person, you’re a White person’ and things of that nature,” he said. “I’m an artist. I’m a creative entity in this life.”

In 2019, Williams spoke about embracing the different parts of his character by using gender-fluid pronouns.

“And you see I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine,” he said in an interview with Esquire magazine. “I’m a very soft person. I’m not afraid to show that side of myself.”

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