- Blackface, White Noise: Jewish American Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot
Michael Rogin has produced an important book focusing on the relationship between Jewish movie makers and blackface imagery from 1927 to 1950 Professor Rogin, now a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has written several major books and articles on politics and race in American history. Drawing upon psychological theories, his current work, Black Face, White Noise explores the wider implications of negative portrayals of blacks in Hollywood films. Rogin’s aim, as he tells us, is to shed light on the roots of the Jewish—Black conflict that informs our recent politics. The result is a work that will influence and engage scholars attention for some time to come. Yet where Rogin sees retrogression in the images of black stereotyping, it seems to me that the evidence reveals that movies in this era reflected the displacement of traditional racial stereotyping in favor of a pluralistic vision of the nation.
Rogin comes to his conclusions by basing his understanding of Hollywood movie makers on the analysis of Neil Gabler who argues that Jewish producers wished to assimilate into an unchanging and monolithic American culture. He also assumes, along with film and cultural historians, that the popular arts of the Depression promoted conservative myths and symbols. Building on these two assumptions, he explores how The Jazz Singer, Whoopee, Gone With the Wind, Pinky, Home of the Brave, and Intruder in the Dust and other films represented the efforts of Jews to gain acceptance in a unified Americanism by revitalizing racial images associated with minstrelsy.
In so doing, Rogin, fails to see how Jewish producers and artists were not so much adapting to a racialized democracy as making something that was very different. Ever since the early 19th century, the Anglo Saxon middle class had used patronage of national magazines, newspapers and theatres to define the nation’s popular values. Within the most popular art of the day—ministrelsy—whites also put on cork to promote the vision of a white democracy that excluded blacks. The mask was significant because it allowed caucasians to gain a psychic release from white society, while showing that the qualities of blackness were not acceptable in the community. Hence if whites were portrayed on the stage as inherently mature and manly, racial minorities were childlike, sensuous, prone to class anger and incapable of romantic love.
Yet as the cities grew and migrants arrived from Eastern and Southern [End Page 115] Europe the new immigrants did not easily fit these older norms. In fact official opinion makers saw them as “not yet white,” an “in-between people.” 1 These ethnics used dance and music to express the body; their women worked; and they too challenged the class and racial superiority advanced by official tastemakers. Though their whites skins meant that they could assimilate, they were instead forging in the large cities a mass culture that mixed together men and women, the middle and lower classes in new public arenas like vaudeville and movie theatres. It was in these low brow environs that Jewish showmen rose to great prominence as skilled show business entrepreneurs. But unlike the Anglo Saxons and other migrants they were a diasporic people, coming from different lands and often speaking several languages. As such they had an emotional and material stake in creating a pluralistic ethos within mass art.
Though Rogin sees the Jazz Singer representing the desire of Jews to assimilate to the traditional white ethos, the tale is better understood as a tragic struggle to realize a more pluralistic culture. Al Jolson plays a Jewish youth who grows up on the Lower East side of New York City. On the street he sings and dances black jazz. Yet his father, a cantor, despises his son’s attraction to “nigger music” because he, not his son, has begun to adapt to public life of the Anglo Saxon nation. This is symbolized by a painting Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life”—a...