Ralph Northam Defended Blackface Scandal With A Quote Almost Directly Lifted From Blackface Movie, ‘Soul Man’

Virginia governor Ralph Northam at a press conference.
Alex Edelman / Getty Images

Ralph Northam just learned a lesson about blackface that he would have already known if he bothered to rent the movie Soul Man.

The Virginia governor offered a more in-depth apology for his blackface scandal this weekend, saying he has learned that the practice is rooted in a deeply racist portrayal of black people and that he has learned that white people are able to take their makeup off, while black people can never change the color of their skin. If you’re a fan of controversial 1980s movies, you might remember that’s the same lesson that C. Thomas Howell’s character learned at the end of the blackface movie Soul Man.

In an interview on Saturday, the embattled Virginia governor said he has been having many conversations with African-American leaders and lawmakers and learning about black history in the days since his medical school yearbook page was published, showing a man in blackface standing next to another man wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. As the Washington Post noted, Northam said he has come to a greater understanding about the true impact of blackface in the days since the scandal first erupted.

“And the main point that this person told me is that at the end of the day, the white person — just as I was the white person that dressed up as an African American dancer — at the end of the day we can take that makeup off and go back to being white,” but a black person will always have to live with the consequences that come with the color of their skin.

As author and historian Kevin C. Kruse noted, that is the same lesson at the end of the 1986 movie, Soul Man, about a Harvard Law School student who wears blackface and pretends to be African-American in order to win a scholarship.

In that pivotal scene, Howell’s character is speaking with the professor played by James Earl Jones, who said that Howell’s character must now understand a bit of what it is like to be black.

“I don’t really know what it feels like,” he responded. “If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same, sir.”

In the end, Howell’s character was able to stay at Harvard Law. The ending for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam isn’t so clear, as he faces a number of calls to resign the position, but has vowed to remain in office.