Movies as a Bridge to US Assimilation

By Marien, Mary Warner | The Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Movies as a Bridge to US Assimilation


Marien, Mary Warner, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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