Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein (and specifically his prosthetic nose) has reignited the controversy around “Jewface”: should non-Jewish actors be playing Jewish roles? Sarah Silverman kicked this off a while back by criticising the casting of Kathryn Hahn as the Jewish comedian Joan Rivers. After that Maureen Lipman attacked the decision to cast Helen Mirren as Golda Meir; then David Baddiel pitched in, objecting to the casting of a non-Jew as the voice of a Jewish character in an animated movie. He felt that the sensitivities of every minority were being taken into account, except when it came to Jews.
Those who refer to non-Jews playing Jews as “Jewface” are clearly trying to draw a parallel with the old vaudeville “minstrel shows”, when white artists wore “blackface” makeup and performed song and dance routines as black people; the implication is that it is just as offensive. I don’t think this comparison holds up. First of all you have to realise just how racially derogatory those minstrel shows were: the makeup gave the actors comical fat red lips, and the routines portrayed black people as stupid, lazy and easily frightened. Minstrel shows were hugely popular during the heyday of industrialised slavery in the mid-19th century in the U.S., and they were part of the racist culture that normalised slavery. In itself non-Jews playing Jews doesn’t come anywhere close to that kind of offensiveness. Given Sarah Silverman’s and David Baddiel’s own history of playing in blackface (half-apologised for), it’s not clear to me that they really get this.
Moreover there’s a broader point here that’s being missed, which is about the content of anti-black racism. It’s certainly true that it’s no longer OK for white actors to play black people (Laurence Olivier playing Othello comes to mind), and the history of minstrel shows is part of why, but such casting also carried the implication that black people were too stupid or uncultured to portray themselves. Whatever prejudices there may be against Jews (or gay men, or Welshmen for that matter), they don’t include the belief that they are incapable of playing themselves.
There’s a wider debate about so-called “lived experience” casting, and whether you have to be a member of a minority to play minority roles, and I may blog about that in the future. There may indeed be a problem with Bradley Cooper’s nose: for me it feels on the edge of what’s acceptable. However to throw the accusation of “Jewface” around is to appropriate the suffering of another people. That’s ironic, when you think of how often Jewish suffering is appropriated by others.