Wide Angle 18.3 (1996) 107-112
"The Mix Itself is Genuine":
Love and Theft:
Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class
"The Mix Itself is Genuine": Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York, Oxford University Press, 1993. by Eric Lott
Judging from the frequent references I heard to Eric Lott's Love and Theft at the 1995 Society for Cinema Studies conference, this book has already attracted and proved useful to many film scholars. This was most clear among those who work on early U. S. cinema and on constructions and representations of race, but Love and Theft 's considerable achievements have much to offer cinema scholars who work in other areas.
Lott divides his book into two parts. The first carefully "reconstructs" the forms of blackface and the conditions under which it developed, making the case that in analyzing minstrelsy it is especially important to attend to class (and, to a lesser degree, gender) as well as race. The second part performs detailed and often revealing readings of specific aspects of the minstrel show. From this two-part process, Lott concludes that blackface minstrelsy was "a simultaneous drawing up and crossing of racial boundaries," a "mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation" (p. 6) that both helped establish the "color line" and permitted people to reach across the line, a form "in which transgression and containment coexisted, in which improbably threatening or startlingly sympathetic racial meanings were simultaneously produced and dissolved" (p. 234).
Over the three decade period Love and Theft focuses on, blackface, Lott argues, expressed a white, working class desire for transracial union and effected an ironic version of that union through miming, through the "blackening" of [End Page 107] America. This is the "love" of Lott's title. But because blackface emphasized racial rather than class (or more multivalent, polymorphous) identification, it also made extremely difficult--often impossible--the very union it proposed. This assured that the most utopian desires minstrelsy expressed remained at the level of "theft," the white appropriation of black expressive forms.
Making a case for the continuing importance of his topic and the contemporary relevance of his insights, Lott asserts an explicit connection of blackface minstrelsy with much of U.S. culture from Uncle Tom's Cabin to rock 'n' roll. Film is, of course, an important part of this connection:
The early history of motion pictures was bound up with blackface--witness its importance to such major cinematic developments as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), Birth of a Nation (1915), and The Jazz Singer (1927)--and the movies have regularly returned to it since then, whether in Fred Astaire's blackface tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in Swing Time (1936), Melvin Van Peebles' ironic Watermelon Man (1970), or the egregious post-affirmative action Soul Man (1985). (p. 5)
Presumably, it is for a better understanding of this connection that many cinema scholars will turn to Love and Theft. In the most immediate sense, they will be disappointed.
Lott has framed his study very tightly both by period and locale. He focuses on minstrelsy in New York City from the late 1820s, when Jim Crow as figure, song, and dance became popular, to the 1850s, when the by-then-standardized minstrel show influenced the theatrical adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sentence I've quoted above is the only one in the body of Love and Theft that speaks of blackface in the cinema, and this leaves a yawning four or five decade gap between the end of Lott's study and 1895 or 1903--not to mention 1915 or 1927 or 1936 or 1953 (the year of the last Hollywood films that use explicit, theatricalized blackface minstrelsy) or 1970 or 1985. The very precision of Love and Theft limits its direct use for cinema scholars working on blackface.
A number of previous scholars have attempted to fill this gap. Lott cites Joseph Boskin's Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester (New York: [End Page 108] Oxford, 1986), which is...