Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot
By Michael Rogin
University of California Press
339 pp., $24.95
The first recorded use of blackface was not in the theater but in the court of King James.
In 1605, Queen Anne asked playwright Ben Johnson to write a masque, that is, a drama in which the players wear masks. She specifically requested that the offering be one in which she and the ladies of the court could play black by darkening their skin. In other words, their faces would be black but their words, that is, their "noise," would still be white.
In a complex, yet compelling book, Michael Rogin suggests that putting on blackface has been a symbolic act, as much about whites as blacks. Focusing on film, the most popular entertainment medium in the first half of the 20th century, Rogin analyzes how Jewish immigrants and their descendants adapted blackface to their own struggles with cultural assimilation.
Likely enough, Rogin concentrates on "The Jazz Singer" (1927) in which Al Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who rebels against the wishes of his father, a Jewish cantor, and becomes a successful pop singer.
In one of the film's most affecting moments, Jack chants Kol Nidre, the prayer of forgiveness, as his father passes away. The final scene also reverberates with expressions of reconciliation, as Jack, in blackface, sings "My Mammy" to both his mother and Gentile girlfriend.
By putting on the appearance of others, Jack is able to express his independence and exercise his talent. At the same time, by using the appearance of a repressed group, Jack is able to declare the pain and conflict that leaving the Jewish community have caused him. The film's final scene establishes that Jack has found a compromise between the Jewish and gentile worlds of his experience.
Although the analysis of "The Jazz Singer" is central to "Black Face, White Noise," Rogin also provides insightful critiques of blackface as it was used in films of the 1940s and '50s. Two popular Bing Crosby films, "Holiday Inn" (1942), the film that introduced the best-selling record of all time, "White Christmas," and "Dixie" (1943) show the intricate symbolic functions that blackface performed in American culture. Both films utilize blackface to express a symbolic wish for interracial harmony.
Hitler's rise to power affected both Jewish identity and the use of blackface in films. Movies about Jewish intergenerational conflict waned, as did the number of Jewish actors. Yet 1947 saw the release of "Body and Soul," the first Hollywood film to concentrate on the relationship of an African-American and a Jew.
Blackface is not literal but figurative in the film "Body and Soul." A black prizefighter comes to stand for the white fighter protagonist's Jewish identity. At the same time, the film contrasts the life prospects of Jews and African-Americans. In the cold war era, films like "Body and Soul" show the extent to which Hollywood was developing a symbolic language linking Jewish and African- American civil rights.
Concurrently, post World War II anti-Communist movements in the US vigorously questioned what they thought was too great a Communist presence in Hollywood. In effect, according to Rogin, the cold war discredited liberalism and obstructed Hollywood's civil rights efforts.
"Blackface, White Noise" makes substantial points about the responsibility of the media to educate through public entertainment. At the same time, the book is a movie maven's feast, offering a close reading of films that have expressed and shaped American understanding of Jewish and African-American identities.
Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University in New York.