Billy Dee Williams Advocates for Actors' Right to Use Blackface

Exploring the boundaries of creative freedom in acting.

by Nouman Rasool
Billy Dee Williams Advocates for Actors' Right to Use Blackface
© Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Recently, Star Wars actor Billy Dee Williams, recognized for his L Lando Caljson part in the saga, took part in an interview with the host of the talk show Bill Maher on his podcast, Club Random. In the course of this, he expressed rather uncharacteristic views on acting and, in so doing, fell into a rather controversial topic: blackface.He said actors should be given the freedom to assume every role or character in the artistic craft.

"If you're an actor, you should do anything you want to do," he said. Remembering Laurence Olivier in his role as the title character from the 1965 adaptation of "Othello," where Olivier wore blackface, Williams hearkened back to his feeling from the performance.

"I fell out laughing," he said, highlighting Olivier's exaggerated physicality meant to stereotype black men. Despite the potential for offense, Williams found humor and artistic merit in Olivier's choice, arguing for an actor's creative freedom, even in choices that today's standards might find questionable.

Acting Beyond Taboos

The conversation with Maher ventured into the evolution of societal norms around race and acting. Maher pointed out the modern-day unacceptability of blackface, prompting Williams to question, "Why not?" His stance is that the art of acting is boundless, encouraging actors to pursue any role or method they believe in, regardless of contemporary taboos.

Williams, at 87, reflects on his extensive career not just in Star Wars but across over 100 roles in film, television, and stage, including memorable parts in Brian's Song and as Harvey Dent in Batman. He touched on the broader issue of creative expression versus racial identity, emphasizing his desire to be seen as an individual artist rather than through the lens of race.

Williams shared an anecdote about a proposed film by James Baldwin, highlighting the absurdity yet intriguing possibility of Marlon Brando playing Malcolm X, to illustrate the creative risks he admires in the industry. Despite his controversial take on blackface, Williams underscored his opposition to viewing life through the prism of victimhood.

He advocates for open discussion and the power of creativity over racial constraints, aiming for a world where artists can truly explore the limits of their imagination without being confined by the color of their skin or the expectations of society.