Is "The Jazz Singer" racist?
17 June 2006
The answer to this question isn't as easy as it seems at first blush. Yes, Al Jolson does wear blackface several times in the movie. However, the historical record suggests that the African American response to his portrayal was mostly quite positive; many blacks were reported to have wept (as did many whites) during the performance of "Mammy," because this was a *sympathetic* portrayal of the African American experience (in contrast to movies like "The Birth of a Nation"). Remember that in the 19-teens and 1920s, many African Americans had left families behind to come north. Given the cost of train travel and low wages for the jobs that hired them, they'd be unlikely to return frequently if ever, putting them in the same position as immigrants from across the Atlantic (or Pacific!). Thus the sympathetic portrayal combined with the common experience of leaving friends and family behind was responded to positively, even if we may react to it with jaundiced eyes 75+ years later.
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