100 Movie Musicals #1: The Jazz Singer (1929)

Racist garbage, and I regret putting it on here. Not even worth watching as a historical curiosity.


No, okay, let’s expand on that a little bit, because for as racist as this film is — and it’s pervasively, casually, offhandedly racist — it’s an important starting place for the cinematic musical as an art form, and the fact that The Jazz Singer is a movie about a blackface performer that has nothing at all to say about race is such a snapshot of the problems with the genre as a whole for decades to come that it’s worth unpacking a little.

See, the thing about The Jazz Singer is that for 90% of its runtime, there’s no indication that you’re watching a blackface performer. Sure, he’s co-opting Black music and performance as a way to rise to fame and fortune, but you don’t actually see his act until the very end of the movie. Coming to this in 2021, you maybe know that Al Jolson was a famous blackface performer, and you might know that the movie retains that, but blacking up doesn’t serve as a plot point in the movie, and isn’t something that any of the characters struggle with or even consider; the tension comes from Jolson’s leaving home to perform secular music, not from his explicitly racist performance — that’s just the dominant secular musical form in the US, so that’s the kind of performance he does.

It’s that very casualness that gives the movie any worth at all beyond its technological breakthroughs; coming in to this, I was prepared for the movie to either (a) dig into what it means to change race artistically or socially, with the act of performing in blackface reflecting in some way on the immigrant experience of assimilating (or not) to whiteness or (b) use the blackface to express some overtly racist stereotypes, the way Birth of a Nation does, for example, but instead it does neither. The blackface is invisible and neutral, not even worth commenting on or depicting, and that sheer carelessness is horrifying.

Horror, as a genre, ages better than a lot of other genre because its pleasures come from transgressing social norms, even if those norms are upheld at the end of the film; our sympathies are with the outsider, the monster, the ostracized victim, all of whom reject society’s constraints in one way or another, and so those films seem more or less revolutionary as the audience agrees or disagrees with society. Musicals, especially at this early period, are big budget, mass market blockbusters, and therefore much more inherently conservative. Characters don’t break from society so much as move from one acceptable role to another, equally acceptable role; narrative conflict notwithstanding, being a famous blackface performer that packs Broadway audiences in isn’t less socially acceptable than being a quiet cantor’s son.

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