Billy Dee Williams says actors ‘should’ be allowed to wear blackface

Star Wars actor says as an artist he doesn’t want to be limited by race

Shahana Yasmin
Tuesday 09 April 2024 07:49 BST
Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker Exclusive Interview With Billy Dee Williams & J.J. Abrams

Actor Billy Dee Williams has said that actors should be able to perform in blackface.

TheStar Wars actor remembered watching Laurence Olivier in 1965’s Othello, where the actor wore blackface for the role.

“When he did Othello, I fell out laughing,” he said on an episode of the podcast Club Random With Bill Maher.

“He stuck his ass out and walked around with his ass, you know, because Black people are supposed to have big asses … I thought it was hysterical. I loved it. I love that kind of stuff”.

Maher noted that “today, they would never let you do that”, to which Williams asked why.

When Maher responded “blackface” in a tone of surprise, Williams responded: “Why not? You should do it”.

“If you’re an actor, you should do anything you want to do … As an actor, whatever you think you can do, you should be able to do it”.

Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Rex Features)

Maher went on to point out that Williams, 87, “actually lived in a period where you couldn’t play the parts you should’ve played”.

Williams replied: “But it didn’t matter. Of course it happened but the fact is, you discuss it. The point is you don’t go through life feeling like, ‘I’m a victim.’ I refuse to go through life saying to the world, ‘I’m pissed off.’ I’m not gonna be pissed off 24 hours a day.”

Dee Williams is currently promoting his memoir What Have We Here? Portraits of a Life, which follows his life from his childhood in Harlem to his career on Broadway and Hollywood. Williams is known for playing Lando Calrissian in the 1980’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, as well as his roles in Brian’s Song, Lady Sings the Blues, and Mahogany.

Earlier in the podcast, Williams also said: “If I’m going to be creative, let me be creative as an individualist. I don’t want to do anything based on this whole idea that ‘you’re a Black person, you’re a white person’ and things of that nature. I’m an artist. I’m a creative entity in this life”.

Williams has talked about blackface in a previous interview with The Guardian, where he remembered a film his friend James Baldwin had written, where the latter wanted Williams to play Malcolm X. The studio Columbia Pictures had talked about Marlon Brando playing the  Black civil rights activist, which Williams thought was “hysterical but a little bit interesting”.

Williams had said at the time: “You don’t have to do blackface. There are lots of things you can do. Most people in my mind are very provincial and myopic in their vision of the world. All you have to do is use your imagination and, if you’re good at using your imagination, you can do some really interesting stuff without doing the obvious to achieve whatever it is you’re trying to achieve”.

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