'Times have changed': Czech celebrity impersonation show bans blackface

The local edition of the Spanish hit 'Your Face Sounds Familiar' has long faced criticism for it performers' racial transformations.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 08.04.2021 14:14:00 (updated on 08.04.2021) Reading time: 4 minutes

Celebrity impersonators will no longer be allowed to perform in blackface on the TV Nova show Tvoje tvář má známý hlas (Your Face Sounds Familiar). The practice had caused some controversy in the past when Czech celebrities darkened their faces to impersonate African American stars, but that had been brushed aside until now.

Tvoje tvář má známý hlas, now in its eighth season, is made under license. The original version called Tu Cara Me Suena began in Spain in 2011. The decision to stop using blackface came from the owner of the concept, and not locally from TV Nova. “TV Nova always produces its programs in accordance with the requirements of the franchise owner,” Vojtěch Boháček, the PR coordinator of the Czech version of the show, told the tabloid Expres.cz.

But he didn’t criticize the decision, instead he acknowledged that there has been a shift in attitudes.

“Times are changing, and with it the insight into what our civilization considers acceptable. TV Nova is aware of these shifts and reflects them. Our goal has always been and is to respect and celebrate artists around the world, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or any other characteristics,” Boháček added.

Under the show’s format, celebrities are randomly assigned a song to perform regardless of gender or ethnicity. The celebrities then uses costumes and makeup to transform into the artist that performed the original song.

The change in policy is already visible. In the third season, which aired in the first half of 2017, Markéta Konvičková used blackface when assigned the song “Think” by Aretha Franklin. When Roman Vojtek was recently assigned the same song, he wore the same costume but did not appear in dark makeup.

Not everyone agrees with the change. The issue of blackface on the show had been raised previously, and actress Eva Burešová on the YouTube podcast U Kulatého stolu (At the Round Table) in November 2020 said that the makeup was intended to honor the original performer, and not mock them. She said that not changing the skin color was more insulting to the original performer, as it hides part of their identity.

A poll by tabloid Super.cz on the question of whether celebrities should be able to perform in blackface on the show found that over 95 percent in favor.

Do you agree with TV Nova's ban on blackface in shows like "Your Face Sounds Familiar"?

Yes 53 %
No 47 %
199 readers voted on this poll. Voting is closed

This is not the only controversy faced by the show. In October 2020 at the end of the seventh season, there was backlash over the use of the n-word in a song by Cardi B, which was performed by Jitka Čvančarová. The Czech singer faced criticism for using the word, but the producers of the show defended her by pointing out that the song had been assigned to her and wasn’t her choice. They said the criticism should be directed at the show, and not the singer. The producers, though, made an almost identical statement about times changing and the show needing to reflect that.

For her part, Čvančarová apologized on social media, saying she should have changed the lyrics and it was not her intention to offend anyone. She also posted a quote from Czech politician Jan Masaryk that denounced racism and asked people to love one another.

Controversy over blackface on the show goes back to the very first season, when actor Petr Rychlý in 2016 used makeup for his impersonation of Louis Armstrong. While it was met with some praise at the time, there were also critical comments on social media. Also in the first season, actress Hana Holišová used dark makeup to transform into Beyoncé.

The Czech version of the show is not the only one to come under fire. The Polish version of the show, Twoja Twarz Brzmi Znajomo, in March was surprised by a social media backlash when female singer Maja Hyży wore a curly wig and dark makeup to portray Bill Withers signing “Ain't No Sunshine.” The producers of the Polish show so far have defended the practice.

“We are very surprised with the number of negative comments regarding to the TV show Your Face Sounds Familiar. The Polish edition of the show, seen as exemplary abroad, always tries to show great performances, which strive to be as close to the original as possible,” they said in a statement.

“The intention of each star performing on the show, as well as of the whole production team, is to recreate the original performance in the most precise manner, while honoring the original artist,” they added. So far, they have not announced any intention to change their policy.

The issue of blackface has come up in other contexts in Europe, notable Black Pete, a Christmas character popular in the Netherlands. There has been a movement in recent years to alter the Christmas traditions in the Netherlands as more and more people are finding Black Pete offensive. Defenders say he is black from going down chimneys, while critics say the racial connotations are quite clear.

People not offended by blackface in Europe say that this kind of behavior doesn’t carry the same historic weight as it does in the United States and Britain where it’s universally considered taboo. But others argue that the practice perpetuates racism on a global scale.

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