Blackface Fish

Fresh as the sea and funny, or tired, racist bull?

Screengrab from the offending ad.

Imagine our feigned surprise when blackface reared its head again, this time in a South African advertisement for the Cape Town Fish Market. The ad posted on Youtube earlier this week, uses air quotes as a device to set up a series of scenes that are supposed to sell us on the idea that unlike other people, when the management of the Cape Town Fish Market says their fish is fresh, they mean fresh, not “fresh”, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

In the offending scene, a white actor is painted black (screen grab above) and puts on an Afro wig and a stereotypical “black accent” to portray a corrupt African dictator dipping into his “expense account”, if you catch their drift. Yes, you read correctly. The ad uses blackface to play on the tired trope of a corrupt dictator from a nebulous, nondescript African state. It’s a double blacking up of stereotypes, because corruption and dictatorial tendencies are not uniquely African. That the two have such a strong association when corrupt, authoritarian politicians have been a global phenomenon throughout history has a lot to do with the enduring appeal of the idea that Africa was better off under its white colonial masters.

What did genuinely surprise us was that the agency behind the ad, Lowe Cape Town, part of the Lowe and Partners SA group, said it received overwhelmingly positive responses from its “diverse” pool of test viewers of staff and clients prior to flighting the ad and that it continues to receive positive responses after it hit the airwaves. A quick search through social media suggests their staff and clients might not be as diverse (or as ready with a forthright view) as the agency thinks.

The agency also said: “We do feel that it’s unfair to compare the scene to ‘blackface’ as we are obviously parodying the scene and using a familiar cliché (as we do it all of the other scenes). If the advert was being flighted in Europe, we would most likely have chosen an Irish Banker as the character as it’s important that the viewer closely relates to the cliché.”

This, folks, makes the scene classic blackface. The performance would fail without playing up for a receptive audience (whoever that may be) a prejudicial racial and national stereotype; that black African leaders are corrupt dictators in this case. Drawing on a racist art form used historically to reinforce stereotypes about free and enslaved black people in pre-civil war America (and eventually about black people elsewhere) makes it even worse. Irish bankers, frankly, have not been subjected to anywhere near the kinds of misrepresentation, subjugation and dehumanization. Only those adept at making the gross and unpalatable “fresh” would draw an equivalence between the two to defend their actions.

One of the arguments Lowe and Partners SA used to justify the blackface was that they wanted the actor to portray “an African dictator.” We think a potentially funnier and fresher take would have been to parody a white African dictator. And there are plenty of candidates to choose from, including real historical figures. Watch out later today as we give Lowe and Partners SA a chance to redeem themselves to reshoot the ad by picking from our recommended list of white African dictators.

Update: Here’s the list of white African dictators.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.