Recently, actress Wani Kayrie uploaded several Instagram Stories and TikTok videos of herself with her face painted black. As we soon learned, this was for a character she was playing in an upcoming Malaysian TV drama Dayang Senandung, a remake of the 1965 film of the same name, which was based on folklore. The content that Wani Kayrie uploaded immediately faced severe backlash from social media users, who called out her act of blackfacing.
Blackface is a term used to describe the form of theatrical make-up used mostly by non-Black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. But why is this bad? After all, it’s not uncommon for performers to use make-up (and prosthetics) to look like a particular character they’re trying to embody. In The Darkest Hour, for example, used prosthetics and makeup to make himself look fat and elderly. In the Tamil film Perazhagan, actor Surya used prosthetics to portray a hunchback. So, why then is it wrong to Blackface?
Well, first, we have to turn back time to the mid to late nineteenth century. In the mid to late nineteenth century, white actors would frequently use black grease paint on their faces when depicting slaves and free Blacks on stage.
What we have to keep in mind is that at the time, African-Americans were enslaved, oppressed and seen as less-than-human by the white community. And Blackface was often used by actors to cartoonishly depict and poke fun of Blacks, reinforcing a White-supremacist notion that the African-American community was inferior to them. Through art, Blackface was used for humour that punched down and to fortify a rotten and racist system. (Not to mention, we simply shouldn’t be using anyone’s, especially minorities’ skin colour as a costume, period.)
But one of the arguments some have brought up in support of the Dayang Senandung remake is this: Malaysia does not have a history of enslaving Africans, so why do the same rules have to apply here? Similar arguments have been made about the usage of the ‘N’ word here.
A quick counter to that would be that there are in fact, many Africans in Malaysia studying and/or working, and so their sensitivities need to be respected. Not to mention, we live in a globalised and virtually borderless world and so we should constantly educate ourselves, empathise with and be sensitive towards the social climate of people from all corners of the globe.
Setting that aside, though, it is, in all honesty, an important question. Growing up in different cultures, we tend to look at the world through different prisms. Which is why there was a stark contrast between the way Malaysians and Asians who grew up in predominantly White countries, reacted towards the incident where a MasterChef Australia contestant called out a radio station for ‘racism’ after they greeted her in Mandarin.
But that is a discussion for another day. Because whether or not we should keep the social and cultural landscapes of other nations at the back of our minds when operating in our own country, frankly, can be tossed aside when it comes to criticising the politics of Dayang Senandung. The problem with Dayang Senandung is less to do with racism towards the African American community and more to do with colourism. I recently spoke to Dr Karim Bettache, a senior lecturer in social psychology, on colourism. He described colourism as “a human social construction of hierarchy based on skin colour.” Colourism exists in many communities around the world and it certainly exists here in Malaysia. Even in Malaysia, people of darker skin are generally seen as less intelligent and more threatening than those who have fair skin. Even in Malaysia, dark-skinned people are seen as less beautiful. Even in Malaysia, people of lighter skin tones have privilege over people of darker skin tones.
This is something the people behind Dayang Senandung seem oblivious towards. In an interview with Malay Mail, one of the producers of Dayang Senandung, Fadzil Teh (or more commonly known as Haji Zeel said, “As producers, we only wanted to make a story based on a mythological tale. Our drama is not insulting towards people with black skin. In fact, we glorify them in our story. So far (we have no plans to reshoot) because this is the story and character that was greenlit when we pitched the show earlier this year. The character of Dayang will change to become beautiful again at the end of the story.”
Does Fadzil Teh not see the problem with his quote? Their idea of glorifying blackness is to turn the protagonist back to her former lighter skin (in his words “beautiful again”) at the end of the film? This does not glorify blackness. It reinforces a stereotype that black is ugly and light is beautiful.
In the traditional Malay folklore, Dayang is a princess cursed with black skin at birth. One day, a Prince hears her singing in the woods from a distance and decides to marry her without laying eyes on her. When he sees her, he is shocked, but because he promised God that he would accept all the positive and negative attributes of Dayang, he decides to marry her. The Prince’s mother hates Dayang because of her skin. Dayang is noble and kind and after some twists and turns in the tale, Dayang gives birth to a baby and the curse is lifted.
Some have argued that the story shows us that people with Black skin can be good and heroic too. Sure, but at the same time, the story also portrays Blackness as a curse, a negative attribute and after going on a heroic journey said curse is lifted and the protagonist becomes fair-skinned again. This is colourism. If a dark-skinned person watches Dayang Senandung, is his/her take away supposed to be “my skin colour is a curse. But if I am kind and do good needs, one day I may be blessed with fair skin?”
This is the inherent problem with Dayang Senandung.
Now, I’ve also seen people on Twitterjaya saying “Dayang Senandung is folklore! Are we supposed to change our ancient stories?! We can’t do that!” Well, yes you can and should. Literature, paintings, film, music, art pieces, in general, are all products of their time. They are written and created by people who viewed things through the prism of their time, their values, right or wrong. I’m not suggesting we should erase the old artworks that have bigoted undertones — they are, after all, windows to the past. But we should not glorify them. We should look at these pieces critically through a modern lens and discuss its issues. And if we want to adapt it for a modern-day audience, we should update the politics.
You might have heard of the Sanskrit literature-epic, Ramayana (It’s basically one of the Hindu bibles). It’s a sprawling tale of a fair-skinned warrior, Ram, taking on an evil demon, Ravana, who is dark-skinned. (No prizes for guessing the author’s skin colour.) Colourism is deep-rooted even in the most popular piece of Hindu literature. In 2018, Pa Ranjith made a powerful film titled Kaala, loosely based on the Ramayana. Except in Kaala, the hero (Rajinikanth), the man of the people, the ageing warrior is a dark-skinned person of a lower-caste, who always dons black. The oppressive villain (Nana Patekar) is fair-skinned. If we can update/comment on the Ramayana, we can do it with freaking Dayang Senandung, as well.