Why does the cover for The Jazz Singer a three-disc paean to the creaky 1927 Al Jolson flick (not to be confused with a wretched 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond) — show its leading man, arms out in a crooner’s pose, only in silhouette? Because there’s an ugly stereotype under wraps here, that’s why. The jacket soft-pedals the fact that Jolson spends a significant portion of Jazz Singer in blackface, masquerading as an African-American man — that is, as a grotesque, degrading approximation of one. Original posters for the movie featured Jolson’s made-up visage; hence the censored DVD image.
Jolson, of course, didn’t invent blackface. He was part of a larger pop-cultural obsession with ethnic impersonation. Born Asa Yoelson, the Jewish Lithuanian entertainer blunted his own ”racial” heritage (a term used freely at the time in discussing Jewish identity) by assuming the trappings of another. The gimmick helped make him a recording superstar…and pigeonholed him forever inside an indefensible minstrel-show tradition.
Are we supposed to celebrate The Jazz Singer unabashedly, as this DVD set does? Among the voluminous extras — a commentary track, a documentary on the dawn of ”talking picture” technology, a huge, nearly four-hour sampling of early sound short films — you’ll find only passing, borderline-apologetic references to racial politics, and no one speaking from an African-American perspective. The movie itself, taken in context, still works — provided you can get past Jolson’s bug-eyed acting style. The plot is powerful because it’s so absurdly melodramatic: A stern Orthodox Jewish cantor (Warner Oland, who went on to caricature Asians in the Charlie Chan movies) wants his son, Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson), to follow in his footsteps. But Jakie rebels. He leaves home, renames himself Jack Robin, lands a big Broadway show (that’s where the blackface comes in), and is savagely rejected by his father. Jolson has a freaky ability to portray the wounds of that rejection, especially when Jack clings to his mama (Eugenie Besserer) as recompense. After battling his parents, Jack suddenly reforms, punts his Broadway opening night, and serves as a one-time-only cantor to honor his father’s wishes as the old man lies deathly ill. It’s a four-hanky spectacle.
Watching Jolson treat Jewish ritual as just another form of ”showmanship,” thereby equating blackface with cantorial melodies as an expression of a mournful history, remains a remarkable act of ethnic drag. Still, the sight of that dark makeup ultimately makes Jolson’s act seem less empathetic than condescending. Thankfully, history has moved beyond this movie and its attitudes. How sobering to be reminded that something so wrong could ever have been so popular. C