Jimmy Fallon had little choice but to grovel for forgiveness after his comedy sin got exposed earlier this year. Twenty years ago, the “Tonight Show” star darkened his skin to enhance his impression of black comedian Chris Rock.
The act was innocent at the time, part of a larger comic meme where white performers used makeup to appear black. Few, if any, people howled in protest at the time, and the practice was commonplace. The culture didn’t draw a direct line between the makeup and the inexcusable blackface incidents of the early 20th century, which were cruel, calculating, and intended to hurt black Americans.
Consider the following stars who darkened their skin during the late 20th century/early 21st century sans significant repercussions (at the time):
Robert Downey, Jr.
Today’s culture is more sensitive, more willing to protect black Americans from any connection to the country’s ugly, racist past. So when Fallon’s Chris Rock impression “re-surfaced” (as if by magic!), the comedian had little choice but to respond.
He apologized profusely from his “Tonight Show” perch, starting a long “conversation” about race.
The result? The press still viewed Fallon with suspicion for being insufficiently anti-Trump, but they hoped he would use the incident to push for social justice (and progressive causes) via his popular talk show. And he’s done exactly that.
Yet it didn’t have to happen. Rock could have stepped up at the time of the “re-surfacing” and defended Fallon.
“We all hate blackface now, but my buddy didn’t realize it at the time. He didn’t mean to hurt or insult me, he was just doing an impression. He’s a friend!”
That kind of support from Rock would have changed, well, everything for Fallon.
Instead, Rock went radio silent, leaving Fallon to fend for himself. Now, with Rock out promoting his work in “Fargo’s” fourth season, the comedian is speaking out about Fallon and the blackface imbroglio.
“Hey, man, I’m friends with Jimmy. Jimmy’s a great guy,” Rock told The New York Times. “And he didn’t mean anything. A lot of people want to say intention doesn’t matter, but it does. And I don’t think Jimmy Fallon intended to hurt me. And he didn’t.”
Rock did intend to hurt Fallon, though, by staying silent when it mattered most. Fallon ended up begging for our forgiveness, but it could have been worse. He might have lost endorsement deals, or even his job.
When Cancel Culture knocks on your door, anything can happen. Just ask Kevin Hart, Roseanne Barr, or J.K. Rowling.
And the woke mob loathes Fallon already for his affable interview with then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump at the end of the 2016 election cycle.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Rock said that while the sketch itself—where Fallon, wearing dark makeup and a leather jacket, impersonated Rock—was “bad comedy,” he didn’t hold any hard feelings toward Fallon himself. He “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” Rock said of Fallon, adding that the host called Rock after issuing a public apology for the offensive sketch.
So Fallon isn’t a racist in any way, shape, or form, but Rock let him twist in the wind by staying silent at the time.
Later, Rock admits the powerful forces lined up against anyone who appears in blackface, past or present, or dares to defend any aspect of it now. The journalist asked if the push to erase blackface moments from comedy had gone too far.
“If I say they are, then I’m the worst guy in the world. There’s literally one answer that ends my whole career,” he said. “Blackface ain’t cool, OK? That’s my quote. Blackface is bad. Who needs it? It’s so sad, we live in a world now where you have to say, I am so against cancer. ‘I just assumed you liked cancer.’ No, no, no, I am so against it. You have to state so many obvious things you’re against.”
It wasn’t always this way, and Rock knows it. He also knows, on some level, that when Fallon needed a friend in show business the most, a fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum stood down rather than lend a hand.
A version of this article appears on HollywoodInToto.com.
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