Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Jazz Singer vs. The Birth of a Nation

From a letter in the most recent Entertainment Weekly, with Johnny Depp on the cover:

A Case of Black and White

Thanks for showing some class and justifiably castigating The Jazz Singer (DVD). Like The Birth of a Nation, it may have been a milestone in filmmaking, but that doesn't make it any less abhorrent.

Okay, look. The Jazz Singer has one unfortunate scene. The problem is that's the scene you always see. He's not in blackface the whole movie (he's playing a Jewish boy who disappoints his father by becoming a jazz singer instead of a Cantor), and even that scene isn't really about blackface. Al Jolson's character is performing a minstrel number.

Yes, obviously, that's a problem. It's not unique to The Jazz Singer, though, because movies from the twenties and thirties are rife with uncomfortable performances. The Big Broadcast movies are full of accent humor, where the entire joke is "Lookit the foreigner! He's got a German accent! Haw haw!". Incidentally, they go with Dutch accents a lot more often than you would think. Apparently the Netherlands used to be hilarious.

So that's The Jazz Singer: a scene in which Al Jolson sings a song in blackface. Like Bing Crosby does in Holiday Inn and Fred Astaire does in Swing Time -- not actually playing a black person, but, for some reason, blacking up before singing a song on a stage. In Astaire's case, he's actually doing a "tribute" to Bojangles, but that doesn't help all that much.

Now, let's compare that to The Birth of a Nation, which is three hours of black people being portrayed as subhuman animals and the KKK as noble saviors of civilization. That's abhorrent. Even by the standards of the time, it's explicitly racist down to the core. It does no one any good to lump movies together.

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