*** SPOILER ALERT!!! This post blows the ending to a very famous film. ***
The first time I saw my father cry was when he showed me this:
“What is that?” you ask, assuming (correctly) that it has to do with Jews.
Here’s a far more famous/notorious clue:
(Don’t get your bowels in an uproar, Internet morality police. Just bear with me.)
That is Al Jolson (1886–1950); a man once known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” and a Jew in a time when that was way uncool. These images are stills from THE JAZZ SINGER , the first feature-length “talking” motion picture. The herald of sound. Death knell of the silent age.
And if you are offended by my use of the latter still, you are my target audience.
There is nothing original left to be said about the power of film. I think we can all agree on the force of the punch the moving image packs in our daily lives. But we all most certainly do not agree on what is and is not “appropriate” film. I’m not talking about snuff flicks or porn, here, OK? For the purposes of this essay, “film” shall refer to traditional, commercial movies.
We’re talking, “a theater near you.”
First, some background on THE JAZZ SINGER, for those unfamiliar. (And I’m sorry, but if that title conjures 1980 and Neil Diamond for you, we cannot be friends.)
The first “talkie” was based on a short story and play by Samson Raphaelson called THE DAY OF ATONEMENT. Raphaelson is best remembered as an Old Hollywood screenwriter, but he did not write the screenplay for THE JAZZ SINGER. The Day of Atonement refers to the holiest day of the year for practicing Jews, Yom Kippur.
The first still depicts the climactic sequence of the film, wherein Jolson chants the Kol Nidre.
The second still depicts Jolson performing in a minstrel show.
Minstrel shows are a very touchy subject. So I’m going to cut-and-paste the requisite information directly from Wikipedia, taking no responsibility for the phrasing:
The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface or, especially after the Civil War, black people in blackface.
Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. The minstrel show began with brief burlesques and comic entr’actes in the early 1830s and emerged as a full-fledged form in the next decade. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.
By the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show enjoyed but a shadow of its former popularity, having been replaced for the most part by vaudeville. It survived as professional entertainment until about 1910; amateur performances continued until the 1960s in high schools, and local theaters. As the civil rights movement progressed and gained acceptance, minstrels lost popularity.
Yeah. Glad that’s over with. OK, then…
You now have the basic information you need to understand both the images above and the plot summary below, cut-and-pasted from the IMDb page for THE JAZZ SINGER :
Jakie Rabinowitz [Al Jolson] comes from a long line of cantors. He has inherited the singing ability of the Rabinowitz men before him and has also inherited his place as cantor at the local [New York] synagogue following his father [Warner Oland]. But Jakie instead wants a life as a jazz singer, something he has known since he was a young teen. This move places a wedge between him and his father, who disowns his son. A grown Jakie, choosing the stage name Jack Robin, does have some success as a jazz singer in touring musical revues after Mary Dale, an established musical performer, hears him sing. When Mary gets her big break to star in a musical revue on Broadway, she decides to bring Jack with her. But a chance at reconciliation with his father may come at the price of his Broadway debut.
So, the Jolson character becomes a success appropriating black culture, but ultimately shirks his big break in order to step up and chant the Kol Nidre in the place of his dying father.
Regardless of your ethno-religious background, you have no soul if that shit doesn’t move you. Dad was a slobbering mess when he screened this film for me in 1987. And the sight of his tears made quite the impression.
Now, what does this very old movie teach us?
At the very least:
1) That there has always been a cultural gap between generations in this nation of immigrants;
2) That the bonds of family should be strong enough to transcend the generational gap;
3) That both the Jewish-American and African-American cultures are awesome;
4) That white people love to appropriate African-American culture (because it’s awesome); and
5) That the beautiful, soulful Kol Nidre – brought to you by the culture that built Hollywood because it was accepted almost nowhere else – was one of the first things that movie patrons EVER HEARD.
My father intended to teach all of these things (among myriad others, including that blackface is BAD) when he screened this film for me at age eight. And the lessons remain true, relevant and valuable even today, a near-century since the release of THE JAZZ SINGER.
The original negative of this film is protected by the Library of Congress because it has been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The American Film Institute has dubbed it #90 out of the best American films of all time. But this film is just as taboo as it is revered, because of the blackface. And the infinite ignorance of Internet-era American moral outrage says that, because we now (correctly) deem blackface degrading and offensive to black people, it is wrong to screen this kind of film today.
I say, fuck all y’all and your revisionist history!
We learn from the mistakes of history by confronting them head on, not by pretending they never existed.
This is getting long. I’m running out of Friday, and I could write an entire monograph on this topic. So I’m splitting this essay in half, leaving you with the following food for thought:
WHO IS BETTER EQUIPPED TO BE AN OPEN-MINDED CITIZEN OF THE WORLD: THE EIGHT-YEAR-OLD WHO SAW THE JAZZ SINGER, OR THE EIGHT-YEAR-OLD WHO WAS SHIELDED FROM THE LIKES OF IT?
Suck on that, ignorant Internet morality police!
Knowledge is power.
Tune in next week for an elaboration on my disgust with politically-correct morality, for an argument against any and all forms of censorship (even parental), for the story of how THE JAZZ SINGER impacted my personal life (in a wonderful way) and for a condemnation of the most offensive film Disney has ever released: Musing #28: THE LITTLE MERMAID Is a Feminist Nightmare (Teach Your Children Well, Part II).
Until then, “Damn the Internet morality police, full speed ahead!”