Blackface of The Jazz Singer (1927)

jazz singerThe Jazz Singer (1927) is directed by Alan Crosland. It tells the story of Jakie Robinwitz,, later known as Jack Robin, played by Al Jolson, the son of Cantor Rabinowitz, played by Warner Oland. His father wants him to become a cantor, the role of generations that came before him but Jakie wants to be a jazz singer. After his father catches him singing in a saloon, they have a big argument and he leaves the house to follow his dreams and with the help of Mary Dale, played by May McAvoy, he makes his way to a Broadway revue. But, when his father falls ill he is forced to decide between his debut on the Broadway or singing in the synagogue for Yom Kippur. He goes to see his ailing father and chooses to sing as a cantor, and right then his father dies. The film ends with Jack singing “My Mammy” in blackface.

According to the article “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice,” writer Micahel Rogin states that The Jazz Singer was the founding movie of Hollywood sound and it introduced the blackface performer Al Jolson to film (Rogin 430). Blackface was first used by white actors during the post-Reconstruction Era in minstrel shows and it was the legacy of vaudeville entertainment to parody black people (Bell, Campbell, and Chidester 298). Therefore, just as movies of the Classic Hollywood returned to old formats and traditions, The Jazz Singer (1927) returns to old traditions, blackface, in order to move it forward into new genre of films created by sound.

Movies followed a reconciliatory pattern that started in “The Classic Period” of American movies (Ray 58). In the book, A Central Tendency of Hollywood Cinema: 1930 – 1980, author Robert Ray states that American cinema was always trying to find ways to overcome dichotomies, in order to eliminate necessity of choices (Ray 58). In society with open space (such as those depicted in the westerns) there was no need to make choices in that there was space enough for everyone to coexist. Therefore, opposites that existed in classic Hollywood cinema always found a balance; they were always reconciled to show that two opposing forces could exist in American society. They wanted simple and easy answers to complex issues.

This was first demonstrated in the outlaw hero – official hero dichotomy.The outlaw hero in American cinema was the individual in society that stood for individualism, self-determination, and freedom (Ray 59). The outlaw hero was the adventurer while the official hero represented America’s belief in collectivity, objectivity, and conservative society (Ray 59). In The Jazz Singer, Jakie represented the outlaw hero as he leaves home and rejects the life of a Cantor to explore a different world as a jazz singer. He even takes a different name (Jack Robin) to represent his new found identity. The official hero, is his father, Cantor Robinwitz who is very religious, strict, and feels that Jakie should be a cantor as well. He also feels that Jack’s lifestyle is wrong. Then, exhibited in the outlaw hero – official hero is a number of competing values: aging, society and women, and politics and the law (Ray 59). Aging describes the outlaw hero’s attractiveness to childlike tendencies while the official hero is the wise, rational adult (Ray 59). There is a constant conflict throughout the film between Jack and his father. As his father refuses to accept him as a jazz singer, Jack seems to always play a role in the film as child who is vying for his father’s approval. Also, present in the film is a competing value between generations. Cantor Robinwitz is set in his ways so he can only see his son as a cantor. Because he is from an older generation, he cannot accept Jack’s desire to be a jazz singer.

The next competing value is society and women. Ray writes that the outlaw hero had a distrust of civilization that was represented in women and the outlaw sought to escape while the official hero fit comfortably in this civilization (Ray 60). So, usually the outlaw hero will seek out women that lack morals (Ray 60). Although, Jack welcomes women into his life, such as his strong relationship with his mother and his love for Mary Dale, he seeks out a relationship with what Ray refers to as a “bad woman” (Ray 60). Jack is a Jewish and because Mary is not, the film seems to promote a relationship between opposites in a Gentile and a Jew (Rogin 420).

The last competing value present in Hollywood film structure is the politics and the law. The outlaw hero distrusts the law and will often go by his own rules and morals while the official hero believes in the law (Ray 61-62). As a Cantor, Jack’s father believes in the religious laws and sees Jack’s behavior as against those laws. However, Jack seeks to make his own rules when he branches out to follow his dreams (The Jazz Singer).

As previously stated, classic Hollywood followed a reconciliatory pattern that eradicated any choices that needed to be made by offering a solution where both opposing forces could live. Thus, American films resolved those forces with simple answers where both alternatives could coexist (Ray 67). The Jazz Singer differs slightly from this pattern in that by the end of the film, Jack is caught between two oppositions and is forced to make a choice which is to either to perform in the opening night of his Broadway revue (also represented by Mary) or to replace his ailing father and sing on the Day of Atonement (represented by his mother (The Jazz Singer). At the end of the film, Jack decides to sing in the synagogue, allowing the opening night of the revue to be cancelled. His father dies right after. But the film, still finds a way to employ its denial of choices by the end the film in that when he sings in the synagogue, Mary states that he is “a jazz singer — singing to his God” to represent that even though he did not do the show, he is still a jazz singer (The Jazz Singer). The image of his deceased father standing behind him as he sings represents his reconciliation with his father (The Jazz Singer). Then in the last scene of the film, Jack returns to the show, singing “My Mammy” in blackface to his mother in the audience (The Jazz Singer). Click here to watch scene.

Also as the classic Hollywood wanted to offer simple solutions, what is present in the classic Hollywood from 1930s to 1945 is a lack of attention on serious issues, one of those is race. Present in The Jazz Singer, is a hidden conflict of which Jack, a Jewish man wants to assimilate into American society. One of the ways he does this is through blackface. According to Frantz Fanon, American society separates people, based on race into: white and the other (Fanon 186). The other is black. When Jack puts on this blackface, he is able to say that as this is just a mask, he is not black. Therefore, he must be white; he assimilates into American culture (The Jazz Singer). Therefore, this film also takes a look at the way in which identities are established. The film portrays a black identity through the exploitation of blacks but all the while ignores true sentiments of Jews and ignores true blacks as well as blacks are depicted by old stereotypes through the blackface.

The 1960s marked a change in American history that called for a change in the Hollywood system. World War II had ended, and although America came out victorious, it caused a dilemma in American society because now America was a superpower and could no longer live comfortably within its own freedom from noninvolvement (Ray 134). Then, televisions played older movies thus taking away some of the movie theater audience (Ray 133).  Now American citizens were faced with choices and some wanted to see those choices in the movies. That audience was the arthouse crowd who wanted more serious films (Ray 139). But there was another audience, the blockbuster audience, who wanted escapism in and had nostalgia for older traditions (Ray 143). Hollywood, desperate to please both audiences, introduced the problem picture and the epic picture (Ray 144-149). The problem picture examined disturbing sectors of American life such as racial prejudice while the epic film examined biblical stories (Ray 144, 149). However, although problem films tackled serious problems, they still resorted to reconciliatory pattern in that their problems were solved in simple ways (147). Ray says that these films created a division between intent and effect in that all though these films portrayed more serious issues, because they had happy endings, it took the power out of the serious issues so the effect was yet another traditional film (Ray 159).


J.J. Evans from Good Times

The Jazz Singer (1927), perpetuates stereotypes and tries to create a black identity through Jolson’s performance of “My Mammy” (Rogin 434). Then, as previously stated, films of the sixties, and then later television shows attempted to tackle issues such as race but reverted back to old methods. You can examine black stereotypes being perpetuated in television shows that sought at first to elevate the black identity in its characters but then settled on old traditional forms for easy laughs. For example, the 1970s television show “Good Times” was a step forward in depictions of black life when it featured American’s first black nuclear family and real societal issues of living in the project housing of Chicago. But when the show went on, soon it settled on a household run by a single mother (the father, James dies) and the character of J.J. with his jokes, easygoing demeanor, and “Dynomite!” phrase took over the show. Fast forward too 2000, how does Tyler Perry’s Madea fit in to this dynamic?

Tyler Perry as Madea

Tyler Perry as Madea

When Madea was first introduced to audiences first on theatre stages and then on film, for some it was like s new form. It was an image that was created by another black person for black audiences. But, slowly I think that what was being revealed is the revertion towards old methods. Although it might be a black person on screen and on in the audience and in the director’s chair, that does not mean that the thoughts being expressed are of true black ideas, which I argue are very complex and go beyond a funny black man in a dress. But Madea might be reminent of old stereotypes starting even before the blackface in The Jazz Singer (1927). Hollywood system’s key to survival depends on the ability of its followers to regenerate it in fresh ways and its audience ability to forget older forms (Ray 264).  These stereotypes present in all these images from the minstrel show to television shows are not new, but grounded in a history of which the audience fails to realize and so just perpetuates those same stereotypes; the tendencies of American cinema (Bell, Campbell, Chidester 296). It raises questions of whether Perry has himself resorted to reconciliatory pattern of depicting blackness and black life in that he relies on old views of black identity and then expresses black identities in simple ways. More on this to come …


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