The Jazz Singer at 90, Part V (Let’s talk about blackface)

2

One of the reasons I was so annoyed and disappointed with The Rap Critic and his annoying girlfriend Lady Jess’s review of The Jazz Singer was because it was little more than one huge rant against blackface. They went total SJW and unfairly applied contemporary views to a radically different era.

Rap Critic admitted Al Jolson wasn’t a racist at all and that he did a lot of good things for the African–American community, but in the next breath said he didn’t care, because ZOMG, blackface! They “shamed” pretty much every major entertainer for using blackface, even once ever, in the pre-Civil Rights era.

I fully admit I was really nervous the first time I saw this film, knowing there was going to be blackface. Having been born in 1979, I grew up in a much different era, and also have lived the majority of my life in an area that’s about half-African–American.

A lot of the African–American kids at my awful junior high were much nicer and more accepting than the other white kids, which was my inspiration for creating Marjani Washington in Little Ragdoll.

And yet, when I saw the blackface scenes in context, I wasn’t offended or angry at all. As I researched the history of this now-discontinued performance style, I gained a greater understanding of its proper historical context.

The use of blackface in The Jazz Singer stems from minstrel shows, and as such is separate from that of white actors playing African–Americans (a subject for a whole other post!). Depending on context and intent, these performances could be positive, neutral, or perpetuate ugly, racist stereotypes.

There were definitely performers whose characters represented, e.g., oversexed people, pathological liars, thieves, lazy workers, easily-spooked cowards, and buffoons, but there were also plenty of other ethnic and racial stereotypes in the same era.

Other stock characters which would never be allowed today included drunken Irishmen, money-hungry Jewish pawnbrokers, and bumbling Italian immigrants. In the context of the era, most people wouldn’t have considered it unacceptably racist and offensive.

We can’t judge other eras’ standards of acceptability based upon our own. For example, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I see a woman referred to as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name, but that was considered a married woman’s proper, respectable title. Most people never questioned that custom.

After minstrel shows declined in popularity, blackface moved to vaudeville. In Al Jolson’s case, it was a way of exposing white audiences to blues, ragtime, and jazz. This was an era when people “knew their place,” and as such typically wouldn’t know about that kind of music.

Blackface was also a way for him to step into a different persona, Gus, who was smarter than his white masters. He subtly poked fun at the idea of white supremacy by frequently helping them out of problems they’d created themselves, and being wily and wise-cracking.

In the 1926 Vitaphone short A Plantation Act, he performs three songs and pleasantly addresses his audience. It’s so matter-of-fact, with zero maliciousness or intended racism.

Blackface is integral to the story of The Jazz Singer. It wouldn’t be the same story or “a lot better,” as Rap Critic and his SJW girlfriend insisted, if the blackface were absent. It lets Jack Robin combine the Jewish cantorial tradition with modern jazz, letting out the anguished cry of both peoples in an impassioned prayer.

For the entire story, Jack has also been hiding from himself, running away from his roots, with a de-Judaized name, a radical break from his family and hometown, and blackface. He becomes a different person in blackface, with greater artistic freedom. Jakie Rabinowitz couldn’t do that.

In the climactic penultimate scene, his heart, soul, and identity are finally laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide his origins. He releases the cry of “a jazz singer—singing to his God.”