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James Franco in Spring Breakers makes us wonder: Can white actors play black?

Gary Oldman in True Romance
Gary Oldman in True Romance
Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder

IN CINEMASPEAK, to say a white dude is “acting black” means he’s behaving like a stereotypical version of an African-American male. He’s adopting a posture of extremes in an affected urban patois that often includes intense sexual virility, a propensity for violence and a life story replete with unimaginable depredation. He’s also wearing it. From baggy clothes to goofy hairdos, this brand of on-screen poseur leaves no cliché unturned. He’s a caricature — a walking, talking pack of lies.

But the big screen was invented to contain such lies. And white dudes “acting black” have created some memorable characters. At their best, these characters are more than sly versions of white actors in black face. They’re a reflection of our culture and revealing of a peculiar tendency among white dudes to establish an identity by creating and then colonizing a perception.

Given uber-white dude James Franco’s turn as a cornrowed gangster in this month’s Spring Breakers, we decided to list the four best such performances.

4) Edward Norton as Gerald ‘Stone’ Creeson, Stone (2010)

Like Franco’s Alien, Norton’s Stone wears cornrows, deploys an accent that’s a cross between a hayseed and Eminem, and uses language ripped from your favorite gangsta rap song. He’s a manipulative prisoner hoping for parole, and part of his complexity hinges on just how much of Stone is real and how much is acting.

Illest line: “I don’t want no beef with you. I just want to be a vegetarian.”

3) Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder (2008)

He’s not just white; he’s a white Australian. And he’s not just “acting black”; he’s putting on surgically enhanced blackface. Downey’s turn as Lazarus — an actor who plays an African-American soldier fighting in Vietnam — works because it’s so self-conscious and revealing of Lazarus’ deeply flawed character. And because Downey is hilarious.

Illest line: “What do you mean, ‘you people’?”

2) Gary Oldman as Drexl Spivey, True Romance (1993)

Quentin Tarantino wrote the most profane, violent and absurd character on this list, and Oldman plays him to a motherfuckin’ T. Though the dreadlocked pimp Drexl isn’t on screen long, he’s given some of the choicest lines in a film full of choice lines. From waxing philosophic about performing oral sex to his liberal use of the N-word, sans irony, Drexl is the white dude as Blaxploitation icon; and he might have been our No. 1 pick had Tarantino and director Tony Scott seen fit to invest him with more of a backstory.

Illest line: “He must have thought it was white boy day.”

1) Josh Peck as Luke Shapiro, The Wackness (2008)

Peck’s Shapiro is the most genuine character on this list. A self-loathing stoner who moonlights as a dealer in New York City, he’s a product of ’90s East Coast hip-hop. He lives in the time and place of Biggie, the Wu Tang Clan and Craig Mack, and Luke has absorbed it so thoroughly that, unlike the other three performances we’ve noted, he avoids devolving into self-parody.

Illest line: “I got mad love for you, shorty.”