Viewers who tuned into ABC News on Oct. 3, 1977, heard that the The Jazz Singer — a film released 50 years earlier — had “revolutionized the motion picture industry.” After footage of Al Jolson singing played, a reporter noted that the The Jazz Singer heralded a new era of “talking pictures,” without mentioning something that would be glaringly notable to audiences today: Al Jolson was in blackface.
For decades, the 1927 film The Jazz Singer was more famous for its importance as the first “talkie” film than for its use of blackface, a practice that was accepted by white audiences a century ago. Even in the last few years, mainstream stars like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have used it, sometimes with what they may intend as a winking irony.
Nearly 100 years after the Al Jolson film’s debut, the Black Lives Matter has movement has led to a new wave of reckoning and regret about the use of blackface, causing episodes of recent shows to be shelved or to receive disclaimers. Even depictions of blackface intended to show the racism of it — including in episodes of The Office and 30 Rock — are determined to be not worth the risk that someone could be offended or hurt.
But the story of the Jazz Singer illustrates that the history of the entertainment industry is more closely intertwined with blackface than anyone would like to admit.
Films once seen as great cultural leaps forward can now feel like embarrassing relics, if not outright racist propaganda. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, a blockbuster in its time, was for many years celebrated as stunning technical achievement, despite its repugnant celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. And the sweeping epic Gone With the Wind, the most successful film in history when box office is adjusted for inflation, is now notorious for its racist portrayals.
“Critics and scholars will willingly say that the way D.W. Griffith made movies is foundational to how classical Hollywood cinema is made even to this day,” Emory University film professor Nsenga Burton told MovieMaker. “But they won’t say that the way he depicted women, Black people, mixed-race people and power relationships is also foundational to the ways in which those groups are depicted in media today.”
Audiences today, Burton says, are finally realizing how racist depictions on-screen can easily translate into harmful behavior and violence towards Black people off-screen. Burton, who is also a journalist and creator of The Burton Wire, a global news and culture publication dedicated to free-thinking, says that in today’s society, “visual media is imbued with a notion of truth.”
The greater realization that stereotypes onscreen inform racism offscreen has led to a greater insistence that onscreen portrayals be as vast, nuanced, and complex as the America that films and TV shows aspire to reflect.
A History of Blackface
Blackface was a wildly popular form of American entertainment — for white audiences — long before it was captured on screen.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project recently detailed how Thomas Dartmouth Rice created the blackface character, “Jim Crow” in 1830, and how by the 1840s, minstrel shows, in which a blackface minstrel would sing, dance and give speeches, took over concert halls “almost exclusively in the North.”
Although the 1619 Project reports that minstrelsy peaked from the 1840s to the 1870s, many elements of minstrel shows moved into Vaudeville, a style of theater popular from the mid-1890s until the 1930s. Birth of an Industry author Nicholas Sammond notes that Vaudeville “borrowed structural elements from blackface minstrel shows.”
Vaudeville shows typically included magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, jugglers, singers and dancers. The Vaudeville chain system, in which a manager controlled a group of performance houses, was established nationwide, and included the creation of the Palace Theatre in New York City in 1913.
While Vaudeville initially targeted men, it soon came to be seen as family entertainment. Prior to the development of film projection, Burton notes Vaudeville’s major influence was on “how people congregate and watch performances.”
The History Channel reports that when Vaudeville performances went on strike in 1901, Vaudeville theatre owners purchased films to substitute for their absence, and “movies became the main event.”
Silent films picked up many Vaudeville tropes, including blackface. Minstrelsy’s influence on Vaudeville and now film remained as “the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances,” according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Believe it or not, Jolson may have seen his use of blackface as progressive.
The Jazz Singer follows Jack Robin (played by Al Jolson) as he rejects his father’s path of being a cantor in his synagogue to pursue jazz. When his father is unable to perform as cantor, Jack must choose between his newfound identity as a jazz singer and his responsibility to continue his family tradition as a cantor.
He rejects the old ways in favor of a new, uniquely American form of music: He becomes a jazz singer, and uses blackface to assimilate himself into jazz.
“Blackface is the instrument that transfers identities from immigrant Jew to American,” writes Michael Rogin in Blackface, White Noise. University of Toronto associate cinema studies professor Nicholas Sammond recently told The Hollywood Reporter: “For Jewish entertainers like Jolson, blackface was a way of becoming white.”
Jewish immigrants, Burton noted, were at the time systemically locked out of many American industries – as were Black people, women, and many others.
She suggested that “the opportunity to develop an industry and become a power player in spaces that you were previously kept out of” may have led some to “adopt the pedagogy and ideology of the oppressor or the people who are in power, even if it goes against your interests.” (She was referencing Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.)
“It’s a choice. You might have to make that choice because you’re trying to survive as a Jewish immigrant in a country that has been hostile to you in many places,” Burton said, “But ultimately the decision that you’re making has long-term consequences for other folks, particularly Black people in the industry and on the screen.”
Rogin asserts that Jack may misguidedly feel that blackface connects him to what he believes to be uniquely Black qualities. Looking at himself in the mirror in blackface, Jack emotionally connects to his innermost desires in a way that he previously could not.
“Blackface also gives Jack access to allegedly black qualities, intense emotionality and its form of musical expression,” Rogin writes.
Burton notes that Black people bear the cost of such stereotyping.
“While I can appreciate actors having to step into character, as a method, I do not appreciate this idea that putting on blackface frees you, while you imprison Black people to this very problematic image with real-world consequences,” Burton said.
In a recent article for The Guardian, USC professor of race and popular culture Todd Boyd, who also goes by the Notorious Ph.D., notes the lasting harm of racist images in American cinema. He points to Birth of a Nation as the root of Hollywood’s hateful portrayals of Black people, connecting them with the white savior tropes in 2011’s The Help, for example. “If racism is at the root, the fruit that emerges from this tainted root can only be the fruit of racism,” he writes.
The Way Forward
As Burton recently told CNN, the entertainment industry “is built on a foundation of white supremacist notion and thinking, and it was always created to serve and satisfy that perverse need for Black people to be the butt of the jokes and to normalize power relationships.”
Burton believes that if Hollywood wants to make real, sustainable change, it must improve representation in all facets of the industry, including within talent agencies, to create accessible pipeline programs that convert to valuable industry skills.
Similarly, UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt recently spoke to MovieMaker about his M.E.A.N.S. system, which highlights the importance of decision-makers modernizing their worldview and expanding their net of possibilities when considering candidates for a position, along with amplifying women and creating structural incentives for companies to diversify.
“You have to make room for diverse voices and stories and for people to bring their authentic selves into your space,” Burton said, “Society is shifting, the demographics of the world, not just this country, are shifting, so it’s a good thing for businesses to adjust.”