Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal criticized for brief blackface moment at Oscars

Feb. 27, 2012 at 9:54 AM ET

Mark J. Terrill / AP /
Billy Crystal performs during the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 26.

Raise your hand if you expected a blackface controversy at this year's Oscars.

Host Billy Crystal's opening montage featured the bizarre inclusion of his Sammy Davis Jr. character during a "Midnight in Paris" tribute that also featured Justin Bieber. Bieber announced that he was going back in time to hang out with Hemingway -- like the mysterious characters who pick up Owen Wilson's character in "Paris."

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"And then we're gonna go kill Hitler," added Crystal-as-Davis, pulling a switchblade.

The moment got a huge laugh. But Davis' inclusion made not a lot of sense since:

1. Davis died two decades ago

2. Davis was a child in the 1920s.

Oh, right, and 3: No one really does blackface anymore. Crystal did it when he played Davis on "Saturday Night Live" in the '80s, but what somehow airs on a late night show nearly three decades ago doesn't necessarily fly during one of the most-watched shows of the year.

Tweeters were fairly unanimous in responding: "Whaaaa?"

"If you had 3 minutes for First Blackface of the Night in your #Oscars pool, congratulations!," tweeted the New York Times' Dave Itzkoff.

"Hey, Billy Crystal in blackface!" opined another tweeter, Morgan Carroll. "Good thing the Oscars went with the safe choice!" (He was referring to Eddie Murphy passing on the hosting gig after Brent Ratner lost the job following comments widely perceived as homophobic.)

A great many others noted that blackface is just never OK, which Crystal should know: Ted Danson received serious criticism when he appeared at a Friars Club roast with Whoopi Goldberg, Crystal's longtime "Comic Relief" co-host, in 1993. 

Adding to the awkwardness of the moment: The montage segued from "Midnight in Paris" to "The Help," a film about black maids persevering during the Jim Crow era. In "The Help" scene, Crystal was seen eating the feces-laced pie Octavia Spencer's character serves up to her racist former employer.

The only person still doing blackface on American television is Chris Lille, on his HBO show "Angry Boys." While he's been criticized for it, he has received nowhere near the attention Danson did because Lille is Australian and presumably underaware of how much blackface offends people in the states. Also, very few people watch "Angry Boys."

The blackface appearance is briefly shown in this video. What did you think of the moment?  Tell us on Facebook.



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