"Saturday Night Live" recently featured Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump alongside the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, played by former cast member Fred Armisen. While the sketch elicited the audience laughter and mixed media reactions we have come to expect from the show's political takes, one reaction has been absent from coverage: How does Fred Armisen get away with playing races outside of his own?
If we’re going to call out, and in many cases condemn, art and artists that cross the boundaries we have drawn as a society, the entertainment industry and audiences alike should be consistent in their standards
Long before Mr. Armisen, who is Venezuelan, German, and Korean, portrayed bin Salman on "SNL," the skilled impressionist took on several figures outside of his own cultural heritage, including former President Barrack Obama. While there was certainly some skepticism when Mr. Armisen’s impression debuted in 2008, due to his lack of African-American ethnicity, it did not rise to the sort of outrage we would expect today. The general sentiment was, as The Huffington Post put it, “If you can play that part and be funny doing it, that’s enough.”
To play Mr. Obama, Mr. Armisen told New York Magazine that he darkens his eyebrows and applies “something called Honey,” which is also the type of makeup applied when he portrayed another iconic African-American figure, Prince. “I know [blackface is] not very politically correct these days,” he told the magazine, “but I think I will have to if I am to do Obama.”
Really? Were there no black actors able to pull it off in 2008?
Recently, there has been heightened sensitivity to ensure that the stories of individuals of certain demographics are being portrayed by actors of the same race, gender identity and sexual orientation — and audiences are holding the entertainment industry accountable.
In 2017, Scarlet Johansson portrayed the lead role in the film "Ghost in the Shell," an adaptation of the Japanese mange series. From the moment her casting was announced, controversy surrounded the film, as many felt that the lead role of the Japanese story should be, in fact, Japanese. This was made worse by a report that studios Paramount and DreamWorks had experimented with post-production visual effects to make Ms. Johansson appear more Asian. The film was a box office disaster, with estimated losses of about $60 million.
Broadcast networks have also made their stances known. NBC, the same network that airs "SNL," made clear that it would not tolerate even the discussion of an endorsement of blackface. In October, the network cancelled “Megyn Kelly Today” and fired host Megyn Kelly after she defended the use of blackface in Halloween costumes. The move was quite a statement from NBC, which reportedly had to pay the remainder of Ms. Kelly’s three-year contract — a $69 million payout. If this decision is any indication of NBC’s actual view on the matter, it makes the network’s showcasing of Mr. Armisen’s bin Salman even more surprising.
In Baltimore, small community theaters have remained conscious of crossing this line while dealing with a much smaller talent pool. In a recent production of "Avenue Q," local community theater Vagabond Players came under fire when they cast a white actress to play Christmas Eve, a Japanese character. The reaction to the casting caused the theater to publicly apologize. If the people of Baltimore demand this from local theater, an institution such as "SNL" should be held to the same standard.
Audiences have made known that they expect better out of the entertainment industry. For 43 years, "SNL" has been an ultimate critique of culture, often pointing out society’s flaws and hypocrisies. It would be a shame for the show to embrace the same problems it should be satirizing. With an abundance of actors from every demographic ready and willing, there is no excuse for “honeyface.”
Garrett Zink is a corporate social responsibility strategist. Twitter: @GarrettZink.