Want proof that the TV writers’ strike is really over? Saturday Night Live is back in the controversy business. In its first new show of the year, SNL chose non-black cast member Fred Armisen to portray Barack Obama in a presidential debate skit. It wasn’t exactly Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a picture of the pope. Still, some bloggers and other critics thought that making up Armisen—whose background is German, Venezuelan, and Japanese—as a black man was offensive. “They couldn’t find an African-American performer who was funny enough?” asked Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune. Invoking the word “minstrel,” Hannah Pool wrote in the London Guardian, “If you can’t do a believable impression of Obama without face paints, then you shouldn’t be doing one at all.”
That will come as news to anyone who thought that actors are supposed to transcend their own skin. Besides, wasn’t this issue settled in 1991? That was when the distinctly Caucasian Jonathan Pryce, after igniting a firestorm of protest, won a Tony for playing a Eurasian in Miss Saigon on Broadway. A few years earlier, Linda Hunt got an Oscar for playing a half-Australian, half-Chinese man in The Year of Living Dangerously. Armisen’s portrayal is in the best SNL tradition, too; Darrell Hammond and Billy Crystal, both white, played, respectively, Jesse Jackson and Sammy Davis Jr. And who could forget Will Ferrell as Janet Reno, or Amy Poehler as Kim Jong II? Maybe we should just ask Obama what he thinks. As the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, he’d probably have some opinion on the subject. -Thomas Vinciguerra
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