Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Golden Naked Man and the Blackface Singer: The History of Blackface

This week I've been so busy with working at my library job and taking care of a sick aunt that history has been very far from my mind, until I saw this:

No. I don't care if you're wearing a suit, it's still not cool
This is from the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Other than spitting out my tea as a man in blackface showed up, the film was quite good. The story of a Jewish man who becomes a great singer and finally wins respect is touching, if only not for the "Mammy" blackface song. Wow.

At this time, sound had just been introduced into film. The Warner Bros. movie The Jazz Singer-one of the first "talkies"-was not allowed to compete for Best Picture because the first Academy Awards committee decided it was unfair to let movies with sound compete with silent films. It did win a special production award, and two Academy Awards for Adapted Screenplay and Special Effects.

They had no problem then with what I consider personally the most bizarre thing I've seen since last week's movie viewing:
Yes I did watch it - sorry good taste, I know you'll never forgive me.
The whole black face thing began way back in theatre makeup. Remember the play Othello? There were no black actors in Elizabethan England so a white guy had to make himself up as a Moor. It was very common in European theatre after the 1700s that actors would put on ethnic makeup for shows. But the real increase in racist characters inflated in the United States, because beating down people you had as slaves is always a good idea. They created the Minstrel shows, where whites would sing African-Irish fused folk songs as black characters. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice developed the first popularly known blackface minstrel character (“Jim Crow”) in 1830. The shows travelled over to England where their popularity grew.

Yum, chocolate?
The University of Southern Florida has a great special collection online that puts it all in context: why when the movement to abolish slavery was blackface so popular? It states:

"It may seem strange and ironic that abolitionists helped popularize blackface performance and black stereotypes, but minstrelsy tapped into a much wider audience than anti-slavery pamphlets, books, or speeches. Starting in 1832, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice took his Jim Crow act from New York to London, kicking off a craze for minstrel song and dance. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic seized upon this new format, including burnt-cork blackface, to promote the end of slavery. In one of Rice’s songs, the master of a slave named “Gombo Chaff” went to Hell after he died, where he was forced to perform the menial tasks he assigned to his slaves."

One other crazy thing happened before the age of minstrel shows died out: African-Americans performing all the minstrel songs. Unlike the majority of white blackface performers in the 1800s who were born in Northern cities prior to the Civil War, most African American blackface minstrel performers were born after the Civil War and in Southern cities. The differences between white and African American minstrel performers do not stop there. Although the age of urban industrialization brought great opportunity for whites in America, according to Karen Sotiropoulos, “for black Americans, the 1890s ushered in a decade of shrinking possibilities, and artists and activists alike desperately sought any avenue for advancement.

Yup - even Judy Garland int he 1930s did it because this is really how African Americans look.
By the early 1900s, people were still fascinated and watched blackface being performed by men and women, and accounts for the popularity of The Jazz Singer. The singer and actor Al Jolson rocketed to stardom with this movie with his music and face paint, becoming a house hold name. So painting your face like a black person and singing songs was popular up until the 1930s when awareness of human rights and the 1960s civil rights movement began.

If you think that blackface completely died out with the end of segregation in the US, you'd be wrong. Thanks to those "I think minstrel shows are cool" British people, The Black and White Minstrel show (1958-1978) was a singing and dancing show. It was extremely popular, until people noticed that it was really racist and finally made the BBC cancel it.
Because the sequence was the most offensive thing here.
 Unless a performer is doing some sort of historical retrospective, being in blackface is very rarely seen...except in Hollywood and the music industry. The controversy came back in 2008 with Tropic Thunder, where Robert Downey Jr. portrays a Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus who immerses himself so thoroughly in his role as a gung-ho black sergeant that he undergoes what the script calls a "controversial procedure" involving pigmentation alteration. While I get that the film makers were trying to satire blackface, it still is a creepy thing to watch. Just like people in whiteface, yellowface, redface...sigh.

A dude playing another dude...

1 comment:

  1. Actually, Jolson was a superstar a LONG time before The Jazz Singer. And no, blackface is not cool today, but Jolson was not a racist, and there are so many examples to prove he wasn't. In the 1920s, the black song writers of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" were refused service at a restaurant. Jolson was not their friend, but when he read about it, he told them he wanted to take them back there, and if they were refused service, he would punch the person in the face who refused them. In the 1930s, Jolson was the only one in white Hollywood to cross the racial barrier to invite the black dancer Jeni LeGon to his home. In his 1936 movie The Singing Kid, Jolson was set up in a penthouse while the movie was made. He demanded that his co-star, black jazz musician Cab Calloway receive the same treatment. And instead of Calloway having to enter the hotel from the back entrance, Jolson demanded he be allowed through the front doors -- about 20 or 30 years before Frank Sinatra demanded the same for Sammy Davis, Jr. in Las Vegas.