Friday, 28 February 2014

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Country: USA
Director: Alan Crosland
Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland
Length: 89 minutes

When Jakie Rabinowitz is caught performing jazz and disciplined by his father, a strict orthodox Jew and synagogue cantor, he runs away and grows up to become jazz singer Jack Robin; but when the demands of his career clash with the demands of tradition and family, he is forced to decide which is more important. 

Based on a play derived from a book by Samson Raphaelson entitled The Day of Atonement. Drawn loosely from Jolson’s life experiences and his prior blackface performance in Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Jolson’s superstar-sex symbol status, combined with a singing and dancing style infused with African American influences, made him the Elvis of his time. Though technically not the very first “talkie”, it was the first of feature length and wasn’t allowed to compete during the 1st annual Academy Awards in 1929 because it was considered to have an “unfair” advantage over its silent peers. Made for $422,000 - nearly $5 million by today’s standards - it ended up grossing 3.9 million in its initial run. Remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), on TV in 1959 (with Jerry Lewis), and again on film in 1980 (with Neil Diamond). Radio versions in 1936 and 1947 starred Jolson himself.

The Jazz Singer had a deeply profound effect on me. Here is a man forced to choose between being a faithful Jew and a pursuing a career as a jazz singer by a parent who never stops to consider that he could, in fact, be both at the same time. While this had special relevance in the 20’s when Jews confronted a similar dilemma in the film and entertainment industry, it also applies to anyone who has ever faced the cruel and daunting task of “coming out”.

I went through my own cruel Jazz Singer experience beginning at age 21, when I felt compelled to choose between a life devoted to God and one built on who and what I really was: a writer and a musician. Believing they were “of the devil” or otherwise inimical to true faith, I threw away most of my books and CDs and didn’t write a song or story for nearly a decade. It was my own personal Dark Ages, born of a diabolical choice I now realize I was never required to make. (Similar struggles play out in films ranging from Carrie to Footloose to Boys Don’t Cry.)

Here, Jolson’s use of blackface in The Jazz Singer is symbolic, and sadly misunderstood. This isn’t the racist blackface of The Birth of a Nation, in which white actors don makeup for the express purpose of stereotyping and vilifying African Americans. The point here is to highlight the evils of duplicity, of feeling pressured to live two different lives and denying one’s true self, of having to create a false persona just to be loved or viewed as “acceptable”. It’s not enough for Jakie Rabinowitz to change his name to Jack Robin in order to succeed; it’s as if he also needs to obscure his Jewish identity physically, ironically by taking the appearance of another social group that has fought for equality in society. In a more comedic turn, Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus faces the same identity crisis in 2008’s Tropic Thunder.

While blackface minstrel shows were common at the time, many of them discriminatory and pejorative by nature, most critics seem to agree that Jolson’s version of it in The Jazz Singer escapes the “racist” label because of its deeper thematic and symbolic function. A Jew in blackface would also have spoken to the cultural cross-pollinations and corresponding identity crises taking place in American society and art (especially jazz) at the time.

Thankfully, Jolson’s mother comes to the rescue, representing the compassionate and liberated parent we should all want to be. As far as she’s concerned, her son should be true to himself, believing that he honours God as much through his jazz as when singing Kol Nidre at synagogue. Thus his final tribute to her love is, at the same time, a celebration of what makes us different and a ringing endorsement of being true to oneself. Powerful stuff for a musical!

People sometimes get hung up on the blackface. We did at first, too. But don’t drink the Kool-Aid: this is a powerful film about identity and courage, the pain of family divisions and the restorative power of love. One could actually argue that the film goes out of its way to avoid anything like a stereotypical approach to race or religion to make its larger point, as if conscious of what critics might say. The Jazz Singer is the anti-Birth of a Nation, if you will, celebrating the universal human struggle to be true to self while exploring and smashing down the labels and judgments that too often divide us.

And what a mom you are, Mrs. Rabinowitz! May we be half as good as parents to our first child, whenever he or she arrives. (Hint, hint, Him!)

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