The tern “cultural appropriation” seems to be a popular one these days, but I don’t understand what the big deal is. The fact of the matter is that “cultural appropriation” is just the
current PC term for what has been going on for literally a few centuries. It’s not a new
thing, but just a new way of saying “stealing from black folks.”
The list of people who have done it and who have become very
rich and successful because they have, would stretch a couple of miles, but one person in particular
who based practically his entire career from it, was Al Jolson.
Perhaps he’s not a familiar name today, even though there
are, to this day, several fan clubs devoted to him, and he has a star on Hollywood Blvd’s Walk of Fame. But during the
peak of his career, in the 1920’s and 30’s, he was the biggest, most popular
and highest paid entertainer in the business.
Born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, when it was part of the
Imperial Russian Empire, during his lifetime, he broke theater attendance
history, had some 80 hit records, and often appeared in blackface, singing
music by black performers. In fact, it was once said of him that, “he was to
jazz, blues and ragtime, what Elvis Presley was to rock n’ roll,” and that “he
was credited with single-handedly introducing African-American music to white
In other words, he got rich performing music by black
musicians who never got a dime, nor any recognition for their work. An old story
still repeated even today. In fact, even Bob Dylan and David Bowie have been
quoted as stating that Jolson was a major influence for them.
And at the very peak of his international stage career,
Jolson played the lead in the 1927 Warner Bros film “The Jazz Singer,” which
became a massive box office hit, heralding the sound era in films, which led to Jolson being the highest paid actor in films for several years.
However, the truth is that, though the film is often
credited as being the first sound film, “The Jazz Singer” wasn’t the first sound
movie. In fact, it’s mainly a silent film with only 2 or 3 sound sequences, when Jolson sings. There had been attempts at making sound films
before, during the silent film era, and there were other films when “The Jazz
Singer” was first released that were also partially sound. It wasn’t
until the following year in 1928 when Warners released “The Lights of New York” which was the first real, all talking, sound film from beginning to end.
The plot of “The Jazz Singer” deals with cultural conflict
and duty; the son of a synagogue cantor (Jolson) who has become a
successful Broadway and nightclub jazz singer, finds himself in turmoil when
he refuses to follow his father’s family tradition of being a cantor, ensuring
the wrath of his father.
The big final climax has Jolson performing in blackface, and
though it is seen as insulting and degrading today, many white performers of
the period actually believed that performing in blackface was their way of
honoring the black performers who inspired them. But to others, it was, of
course, a very cheap and easy laugh to get from the white audience, in effect
“demeaning” themselves in pretending to be black.
However, Professor Jacqueline Stewart (University of Chicago
Cinema & Media Studies, Black Cinema House curator) and Professor Miriam
Petty (Northwestern University, Radio/TV/Film) say that, as with D.W, Griffith’s notorious “The Birth of
Nation” (which marks its 100th anniversary of the film’s premiere this year), “The Jazz Singer” is “an important film in the history of
Black representation that, due to their notorious reputations, many contemporary
viewers have never actually watched, certainly not in their entirety.”
As they also add, “Jolson’s blackface performance at the
culmination of the story raises many questions about the notion of duplicity
and ethnic hybridity within American identity.”
And after all, Jolson’s blackface routine, as many other
entertainers in movies and on the stage also did, does raise questions
about black imagery and representation.
And with that, next Friday Oct. 30 starting at 7PM professors Stewart and Petty
will present a rare screening of “The Jazz Singer” in Chicago, at the Black Cinema
House, located at 7200 S. Kimbark, which marks perhaps the first time the film
has been publicly screened in many years.
After the screening, they will lead a discussion about the
film and its deeper implications, with the audience.
As with all screenings at BCH, seating is free. To find
out more go here.