In the current anti-immigrant climate, the visual, sonic, and textual modes of representation are becoming battlegrounds we must consider. Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama’s takes on immigration policy and eliminations of ethnic study course offerings from college and high school curricula, are signs of a climate fraught with discontent. However, these fights are not limited solely to the political sphere; in fact, the arena of cultural production—music, literature, theater, and film—facilitates a generalized outlook on Latinidad in the United States by representing Dreamers (the generations of children who were raised in the U.S. from a young age but are not citizens), and/or the thousands of undocumented immigrants who sustain an infrastructure of cheap labor. Within these often stereotypical representations, it is frequently sound that produces the strongest sense of social, cultural, and political difference for Latino subjects.
In this post, I analyze the 2006 film Nacho Libre, a comedy starring Jack Black as a friar who becomes a Lucha Libre fighter, as symptomatic of what I term “sonic brownface,” an aural performativity of Mexicanness. My interest on Nacho Libre is to elucidate how sonic brownface manifests on the big screen, and what is at stake through these seemingly innocent (re)presentations of Mexicanness. I characterize “sonic brownface” as a “speedification” of a Mexican accent, named after Speedy Gonzalez’ infamous call “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Epa! ¡Epa! ¡Epa!” Although comedian Jack Black intends to present a respectful portrayal of a Mexican, his speech enables my analysis of “sonic brownface” within popular culture, a sound that reproduces ideologies about an invisible majority that is also perceived as non-American: Latinos, undocumented immigrants, and dreamers.
Voicing the Other…
The last scene of the Academy Award winning film The Artist (2011), presents why the silent film Artist was against the industry’s move toward the “talkie.” His voice collided with the visual representation of the suave debonair cosmopolitan man—and audience expectations of what such privilege sounds like. Though French actor Jean Dujardin plays the lead character in the film The Artist, it must be noted that several Mexican and Latin American actors did quite well in those early years of Hollywood cinema. Their exotic looks made them desirable and allowed audiences to fantasize about the man or woman on the screen because they could not hear them speak. Moreover, their physicality allowed some actors to “pass” as white. When talkies became the norm, Latino actors began performing now familiar stereotypical characters because in the U.S., their voices were indelibly associated with their “foreignness.”
In the realm of popular culture, both Disney and Warner Brothers created their own “Mexican” characters. In 1944, Disney introduced a Mexican and a Brazilian in the animated film Three Caballeros. Joaquin Garay was a Mexican voice actor featured in the voice of Panchito Pistoles in the Three Caballeros.
His accent and his singing sounded like someone who is Mexican speaking English, as oppose to an exaggerated Mexican accent heard later in the cartoon character of Speedy Gonzalez. Panchito Pistolas showcases a pride in being Mexican as heard in the singing of a ranchera and wearing his gun like the Mexican Revolutionaries of the 1910s. In the 1950s, Warner Brothers introduced Speedy Gonzales to their pantheon of animated characters, coinciding with the next wave of anti-Mexican sentiment during the campaign of Operation Wetback.
In his essay “Autopsy of a Rat,” William Nericcio posits that viewers come to recognize a series of stereotypes about Mexicans through the animated character of Speedy Gonzales. Nericcio incorporates historical references that influenced the design and creation of Gonzalez. He stipulates that this animation creates visual cues which American audiences connect as qualities of Mexicanness, “how this popular animated star comes to function in a way that reinforces politically charged, visions/versions of the ‘Mexican’ on ‘American’ soil” (212). Nericcio emphasizes the “visuo-ethnic clues” to deconstruct the Speedy Gonzales cartoon, and his definition of the stereotype helps corroborates my interest in how “sonic brownface” manifests as a “Speedification” of a Mexican accent. “Strapped for existential input as to the dynamic of Mexican subjects, we turn to stereotypes to provide us with visuo-ethnic ‘clues’ that fill in for empirical data and satisfy the lazy desire of our collective curiosity (219). Whereas Nericcio emphasizes the visual, however, I argue that sound has also held a strong purchase on the American racial imaginary in the case of Latinos. When audiences see and hear Jack Black as Nacho Libre, for example, they already recognize the accent.
Nacho Libre, sonic brownface personified
I propose the concept of “sonic brownface,” which pairs auditory with visual signs of Mexicanness as mediated in popular culture, to characterize the Mexican as a perpetual foreigner within the national imaginary. My interest in a film like Nacho Libre is to elucidate how audiences already recognize “Speedification,” a voicing of Mexicanness that manifests as a performance of “sonic brownface.” This conceptualization of “sonic brownface” is informed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on the “sonic color-line.” In “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York,” she posits that “sound is not merely a scientific phenomenon—vibrations passing through matter at particular frequencies—it is also a set of social relations … the “sonic color-line” begins to theorize the mutually constitutive relationship between sound, listening, and race.” She elaborates how “aural signifiers of race are thoroughly enmeshed with the visuality of race [because] they never really lose their ultimate referent to different types of bodies” (65). In the case of “sonic brownface,” Jack Black does not need to be a Mexican actor, he just needs to sound “Mexican” to conjure a physical referent.
In utilizing the term “brownface,” I also reference minstrel entertainment in which blackness fetishized and simultaneously disavowed African American entertainers consequently framing racial codes onto a spectrum of racialized bodies. In his analysis of the first talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) “Blackface, White Noise,” Michael Rogin proposes that the “protagonist adopts a black mask and ventriloquiz[es]the black, sings through his mouth” (419). Through this masking, the Jazz Singer becomes Americanized through “appropriat[ing] an imaginary blackness” (421). Even as our contemporary sensibility would call out any form of contemporary blackface performance, we have yet to identify a similar masking when it occurs with Mexican or Latino characters. I contend that the models seen in blackface entertainment have already placed familiar scenarios of seeing White or Jewish actors performing an ethnic Other. When American audiences see Jack Black as “Nacho Libre,” they do not need to see him brown his skin; it is enough to hear a “speedification” of Spanish to have us entertain his believability. When “sonic brownface” occurs, it does not Americanize the performer, rather it perpetuates the Mexican and by extension Chicanos and Latinos as always already foreigners.
In order to recognize how “sonic brownface” is performed in the comedy Nacho Libre, it is also necessary to understand how its sound echoes a political climate that conflates “Mexican” with “Immigrant,” thereby representing Mexicans as undocumented people who have no right to be on this side of the U.S./Mexico border, and lumps all Latinos together as “Mexican.” The film was released a month after the nation’s largest immigrant rallies on May 1, 2006, occurring throughout many cities. The timing of the film also coincided with the first series of policy measures on immigration reform proposed by Congress. Whereas before the May Day marches, some members of congress discussed immigrants as criminals, after the big turnout Congress changed their tune, beginning to consider amnesty or easier paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including generation Dreamers, already raised and finishing their schooling in the States. Cue Jack Black.
Speedification del Celluloid: “sonic brownface” in Nacho Libre
Nacho Libre, directed by Jared Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) presents a comedic fictionalization of the story of Fray Tormenta, a career Lucha Libre fighter who was actually Reverend Sergio Gutiérrez Benitez. The film highlights Black’s strengths as a singer and presents him in a character that is the classic underdog trying to achieve his wrestling dream. As Nacho, the cook for the orphanage, he also wishes to provide the children a better meal, at least once in a while. I will highlight a few scenes in which Black’s sonic brownface performance stands in contrast to the other Mexican cinema actors who speak English. I will conclude with a proposition as to why sonic brownface is already so familiar to us.
From the opening sequence, we see the quaint orphanage located in a small Mexican pueblo. “Sonic brownface” is introduced in the film from Black’s first words “Be grateful Juan Pablo today is especially delicious.” In the next sequence, Hess films the Father saying mass in Spanish with no translation, or subtitles. I point this out because it sets up a type of authenticity with the Mexican orphanage, and that the film brings together both American actors speaking “Es-Pan-ish” and Mexican actors speaking in English. Ana de la Reguera, “Sister Encarnación,”–a nun who arrives to teach the children–also does not perform sonic brownface. She sounds like a Mexican actress speaking English, very much like other Mexican actors preceding her in Hollywood, adding a third later of sonic representation that actually works to heighten sonic brownface’s effects.
However, the sequence that most prominently presents the visual and auditory cues of sonic brownface appear in a twenty-minute segment when Nacho recruits his partner, Esquelito, and they transform into luchadores. In the midst of Nacho’s transformation, he must also contend with his carnal feelings for Sister Encarnación and to instruct the boys that wrestling is not good. Black goes from Italian in “taste of glory” (19:114-16); to Cuban “take it easy” (24:03); to urban Mexican American “my life is good, really good. It’s fantastic” (35:50). The sequence ends as Nacho cannot defend Sister Encarnación and blames Esqueleto for the mishap. Here sonic blackface culminates this performativity of Other with “get that corn outta my face. I looked like a fool last night. What took you so long?!” (39:54-40:29).
One could read this performativity of Otherness in the remix of accents as Black’s self-awareness that he is voicing something not of his experience. However, that he is Jewish and a comedian implies a privileged position already granted to him through blackface performances: the permission to co-opt ethnic and racial identities. When he inflects a Cubanesque accent, audiences can recall Al Pacino in Scarface, an earlier articulation of “sonic brownface.” Or the urban Chicano accent as seen in Born in East L.A. when Cheech Marin teaches the Mexicans waiting to cross the border how to blend in with Chicanos. By the time Black performs sonic blackface, as audiences we have been cued to these auditory references, thus we do not need him to alter his physicality to match the accent. It is enough to hear it to understand the referent. The sequence reaffirms Nacho as the luchador, since we also see his persona of the fighter come to life.
Rogin’s analysis can help us understand these slippages, as well as the role of “sonic brownface” in representations of Latinos by white actors. Rogin posits how Jolson’s performance in the first talkie simultaneously killed Vaudeville entertainment and reintroduced blackface into popular media (429). It is Rogin’s conclusion that it is with the appearance of “Jack Robin” in blackface, that the Jewish individual “Jakie Robinowitz” becomes white and thereby successful, mediating this success through visual codes of blackness. Similarly, in Nacho Libre, sonic brownface operates as both the visual and sonic cues of Mexicanness that enable Jack Black to become the luchador who doesn’t need to live behind a mask. As the film ends, Nacho is content, becoming a hero to the orphans who no longer bemoans his lot in life. This ending is contrary to the plight of immigrants from Latin America who must leave their home in search of better economic opportunities.
By identifying sonic brownface, we can see how American audiences fetishize the sounds of the Mexican/Latin Other yet simultaneously disavow their presence by placing non-Latino actors in these roles. Through the performativity of sonic brownface, popular media and film reify codes of Mexicanness as always foreign, silencing their accents because español is still an unwelcomed sound. Sonic brownface can also be a useful tool by which to investigate similar auditory articulations of Latino sounds. I’m thinking here of Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961)—see Priscilla Peña Ovalle‘s Sounding Out! post “Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of ‘Latina-ness’” (January 2011)–George Lopez in Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), Wilmer Valderrama “Fez” in the television series That 70s Show, and the panoply of Latino actors in Machete (2010) by Richard Rodriguez. Given that media tends to recycle tropes and stereotypes, as audience members we have developed a keen awareness of these sonic markings of Otherness.
Most importantly, my intent in identifying sonic brownface concerns its re-appearance during another surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric. The rallies that occurred on May Day 2006 became synomous with immigrant rights. The release of Nacho Libre shortly after these rallies unknowingly silenced immigrant Spanish speaking voices in the popular imaginary until the film A Better Life (2011) staring Demián Bichir, connected undocumented immigrants with an empathetic experience. The strongest counteractions, however, have not been channeled through Hollywood. With the 2012 election, another surge of immigrant rallies happened at the Democratic National Convention with UndocuBus riders arriving in time to call attention to immigrant rights (start at 8:10-11:24).
As seen in this video clip, undocumented immigrants, Dreamers, Latina/s, and Chicana/os committed acts of civil disobedience because their voices will not be silenced.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California.As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sound and Curation; or, Cruisin’ through the galleries, posing as an audiophiliac-–reina alejandra prado saldivar
Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms–Monica De La Torre
Listening to Modern Family’s Accent–Juan Sebastian Ferrada and Dolores Inés Casillas
On a recent episode of Law and Order: SVU Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson takes her new paramour, David Haden (played by Harry Connick Jr.) to see Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. When Benson asks him what he thought of the film, he replies with notable disdain: “I think maybe there’s a reason they don’t make silent films anymore.” When Benson responds nervously to his subsequent display of affection, presumably fearing that someone from work might see them, Haden pronounces, “Don’t worry. Nobody we work with could sit through two hours of black-and-white, no talking.”
Haden’s response might seem surprising given the box-office and critical success of the film, with The Artist grossing more than $120 million worldwide and receiving five of the Academy’s most coveted Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Actor in a Leading Role. In fact, with both The Artist and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo walking away with a preponderance of Academy Awards, many critics, including the editors of Cineaste, began to wonder if we were finally seeing a long-overdue challenge to “long-entrenched cultural prejudices against silent cinema.” There seems to be a renewed optimism that, with The Artist’s critical and commercial success, the popular stereotypes about silent film—heavy-handed acting, artless cinematography, mundane plots—may finally begin to break down.
As a film studies professor who specializes in the pre-sound era and frequently asks even my freshman students to engage with at least one silent film, I am both buoyed and dubious about this supposed sea change in public attitudes toward silent cinema. While some of my students sound a lot like David Haden after I ask them to watch even the most accessible silent slapstick comedies, many of my upper-level students now count works like F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise among their favorite films. And I’ve discussed the merits of The Artist with many of those same students, who easily recognized the film’s many references to other silent-era works, and appreciated its ability to mimic a very particular brand of silent film. I honestly believe there is some truth to the claim that films like The Artist and Hugo have encouraged spectators to engage with other silent films, including the recently restored color version of Trip to the Moon that is showcased in Scorsese’s film. In fact, in recent weeks there has been considerable buzz about skyrocketing demand for silent films via streaming services and even Cinemark’s XD-equipped theaters will be screening the 1927 film Wings as part of its “Reel Classics” series in late May. Rumor has it that Broadway will soon be hawking a production about Charlie Chaplin’s life and 2012 will see the life of silent film star Rudolph Valentino represented in Silent Life.
Michel Hazanavicius explains in the production notes to The Artist that his desire to make a silent film had been brewing for years: “From the beginning of my career, I fantasized about making a silent film.” But he also viewed the dream as far-fetched, one that would be unlikely to draw support in contemporary film production circles: “I call it a fantasy because whenever I mentioned it, I’d only get an amused reaction—no one took this seriously.” Despite this resistance, Hazanavicius refused to let go of the idea and continued to imagine how he might capitalize on the unique artistic potential of the silent medium: “As a director, a silent film makes you face your responsibilities. . . .Everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial; the fact that there is no text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that only works on the feelings you have created. I thought it would be a magnificent challenge and that if I could manage it, it would be very rewarding.”
Despite the initial skepticism Hazanavicius faced, The Artist’s unexpected international success has revealed consumers’ (perhaps temporary) appetite for silent film. Parody trailers of upcoming Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers have aped silent film form and The Artistifier allows users to transform any Youtube video into a silent film.
Even hipster clothiers, Shabby Apple, have taped into silent film’s newfound cultural cache by launching a “Silent Era” collection of swimsuits with names like the “Bara swim mini” and the “Karloff swim top.” Despite this recent upsurge in references to and imitations of the silent film medium, advertisers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have expressed a nostalgic reverence for silent film for decades. Between 2007 and 2010, Janelle Monáe released her Metropolis and ArchAndroid Suites, which refashioned Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film, Metropolis.
Mimicking both the film’s visual style and political message, Monáe also refashioned herself as Metropolis’s iconic android and adopted her trademark tuxedo attire after seeing photos of Marlene Dietrich, the silent and sound film star who helped mainstreamed this androgynous look in the 1920s (and also as a tribute to the working class uniforms of her parents). From AFLAC’s 2006 satirizing of the medium’s stereotyped damsel in distress, to IBM’s 1986 series of ads featuring Charlie Chaplin, marketers have frequently banked on silent films’ ability to attract the public eye.
What do we make of this renewed interest in silence? We must first remember that, as I tell my students, silent films were never designed for silent viewing at all given that most were screened with musical accompaniment that ranged from a single organist to a 40-piece orchestra. Even the composition of The Artist reveals the lie behind silent film “silence,” with composer Ludivic Bource employing 80 musicians from the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra in developing the score for the film. Despite the fact that live orchestral accompaniments of silent film have become staples of film festivals around the world, most of today’s viewers’ experiences with silent film are limited to watching DVD transfers of varying quality, with canned music that is sometimes recycled from one DVD release to another, regardless of film title or subject matter. Few viewers, including those who have attended screenings of The Artist, have truly experienced the “silent” medium as it was intended, with sound and image working in tandem via a combination of “live” music and projected celluloid. Two years ago, I saw the transformative effect of recreating a more authentic silent film viewing experience when I arranged a screening of Sunrise at the University of Northern Colorado with the Mont Alto Chamber Orchestra providing live musical accompaniment. Many of my students still speak of that experience with tremendous reverence, explaining that they finally understood what it meant to truly experience a “silent film.”
While popular audiences tend to neglect how integral sound was to silent film, Rick Altman has argued in Silent Film Sound that sound has thus far failed to establish its own “autonomous measure of worth,” with scholars arguing that because film’s historical roots are bound up in silence “cinema is thus essentially a visual art” (6). Yet, this bias seems to be belied by the reaction to The Artist, with even the Oscars ceremony choosing to use the film’s only synchronized sound scene when introducing it as a the Best Picture nomination. It seems that even an acclaimed twenty-first century silent film must flaunt its, albeit brief, reliance on synchronized sound. Certainly, the many viewers who demanded refunds from their local cineplexes reflect the prevailing opinion that film must include sound if it hopes to maintain their interest and earn their cinema-going dollars.
So, what is the appeal then of these “silent” films in which, though accompanied by music and sound effects, dialogue is not spoken but read via soundless lips or intertitles? For me, the attraction comes from both understanding the aesthetic and technological roots of an art form that I admire and the fact that they require the development of character and narrative in purely visual terms. I am also attracted to its higher degree of abstraction, its ability to create a kind of poetry while also defying the very essence of language itself. And I see in the absence of sound a refreshing denunciation of contemporary demands for ever-increasing realism. Silent film is the antithesis of today’s fetishizing of 3-D.
While I acknowledge this statement may seem naïve given that Scorsese’s aforementioned film manages to combine that “new” technology with a tremendous reverence for silent film’s seemingly “primitive” techniques, I firmly believe that the aesthetics of “silence” have an important resonance for contemporary viewers raised on Dolby. After hearing my frequent complaints about the current impetus toward 3-D, one of my students has taken to calling me Charlie Chaplin, seeing in my resistance a mirroring of the great comedian and director’s opposition to sound technology. Like Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times who cannot keep up with the machine-age and its insistence on productivity, I often find myself longing for something simpler from film, something more retrained and abstracted, less motivated by the demand for “progress” and, at least on the surface, The Artist’s return to silence seems to fulfill that admittedly nostalgic desire. While it is an imperfect, and perhaps misleading, example of the silent medium, even the modernized form of silent cinema that we see in The Artist demands that viewers consider the relationship between history and memory, between film’s relatively youthful heritage and its contingent representations of the past, between sound and silence.
April Miller is an Assistant Professor and Director of Film Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. Her research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature, film and socio-scientific concerns such as criminality and mental illness. She is currently completing a book manuscript, Offending Women: Modernism, Crime, and Creative Production, which investigates the female criminal and her often-overlapping sites of representation in literature, journalism, and silent film.