(FYI: I’m planning a series on The Jazz Singer at 90, similar to my series on BOAN at 100, in 2017, and may repeat some of what’s in this post during that future series. Topics I have in mind include the history of blackface, the transition from silents to talkies, the unintended consequences of the end of the silent era, Al Jolson, the history of sound films before 1927, and the plot of the film. Feel free to give me suggestions for topics related to the film and its history!)
As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, I’m a fan of the Rap Critic. I’m one of many non-rap fans who love his show, since he’s so intelligent and funny, demands more quality and intelligence in mainstream hip-hop, isn’t afraid to rip apart terrible songs (some of his best reviews are of songs he gives a 0 out of 5 to), and gives examples of good rap songs, both classics and current songs under the radar. I also love when he does a collaboration with someone else from Channel Awesome. However, I was really disappointed in this review, though they ultimately judged it fairly well.
Reasons for my disappointment:
How in blazes do you mispronounce Rabinowitz as Rah-BONN-o-witz? Seriously, that was so embarrassing! I know I have a lot more experience with Eastern European surnames than most folks, but that name seems fairly straightforward.
How can you not even figure out how to pronounce Nidre? The prayer is in the very film you’re reviewing, and it’s chanted thrice in a row. That shouldn’t be a difficult Hebrew word to figure out the pronunciation of, and I’d like to think many non-Jews are familiar with the Kol Nidre prayer because it’s so well-known. Even people who have zero to do with their Judaism the rest of the year suddenly care enough to go to shul for Kol Nidre.
Roscoe Arbuckle had a name. His friends never called him “Fatty.” I don’t mind so much calling him Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, but not with calling him only “Fatty.”
There was absolutely no need to get so political near the end of the review. This isn’t a political film in the least, nor is it racist. What in the world does the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement have anything to do with an Al Jolson film from 1927?!
You cannot take something out of its historical and cultural context and apply your modern sensibilities to it. I’ll admit I was really nervous when I saw the film for the first time, knowing there was going to be blackface, but when I actually saw it in its proper context, I relaxed. They really made way too much out of blackface when it’s only in two scenes in the entire film, near the end and at the end. A lot of the celebrities they “shamed” for having used blackface were from an era when that was an established part of the culture, with no offense intended.
This film isn’t about racial issues. It’s about a jazz-loving young man breaking away from his traditional Jewish family to follow his heart, trying to make peace with his pull towards both worlds, and faced with the difficult decision to sing in an important show or take his ailing father’s place to chant Kol Nidre.
I really feel like they disproportionately focused on blackface, without doing enough research into its historical place in entertainment, nor the reasons it appealed to Al Jolson in particular. Obviously, most modern folks will feel uncomfortable with it, but that doesn’t mean we should assign all these political, racist motivations to people who did it in the pre-Civil Rights era. As they themselves conceded, Al Jolson wasn’t a racist.
Knowing what I now know about the history of blackface entertainment and minstrel shows, I don’t see it as inherently racist, but something which should be judged from context and intent, on a case-by-case basis. Yes, it would never be allowed today, but this isn’t a modern film. Of course they’ll have different sensibilities. Getting so bent out of shape over two brief, respectful scenes in blackface near the end is like ranting against Chico Marx for his fake Italian accent.