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Was Al Jolson 'Bamboozled'?

Commentary

The legendary blackface entertainer, dead 50 years, might not recognize himself in Spike Lee's new film, an indictment of racism through satire.

October 20, 2000|ROBERT F. MOSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the Spike Lee-directed concert film "Kings of Comedy," Cedric the Entertainer muses about the possibility of a black president, then delights the almost all-black auditorium by suggesting that President Clinton "is pretty close." Perhaps black audiences of Jolson's time, recognizing his instinctual identification with them, thought he was pretty close too. Such a theory would help explain Harlem's response to "The Jazz Singer," which ends with Jolson singing "Mammy" in blackface.

When the movie was shown at the Lafayette Theater in 1928, the New York Amsterdam News, a black newspaper, called it "one of the greatest films ever made" and noted that during the "dramatic moments" there were "sobs heard all over the theater."

As recently as 1956, a blacked-up Norman Brooks played Jolson in "The Best Things in Life Are Free," a routine bio-pic about the songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, without raising any fuss. Since then, blackface has come to be regarded as a moral typhus, and Jolson's actual historical role as a popularizer of black music and dance has been largely obscured.

All-black musicals had played white venues in New York as far back as 1898, but they did not become a Broadway commonplace until "Shuffle Along" (1921), 10 years after Jolson began promoting what one disgusted critic called "repellent Negro art." In the movies there is good reason to think that Jolson's impact may have been much the same.

Henry T. Sampson, an African American authority on black theater and film, notes that Warner Bros. "decided to add a soundtrack to 'The Jazz Singer' because they 'were attempting to exploit the popularity of black music." He identifies, as a happy byproduct of the film's enormous success, the decision of "Vitaphone and other major companies to produce musical shorts featuring some of the top black entertainers of the time," among them Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, the Nicholas Brothers and Ethel Waters. In other words, rather than embarrassing or offending black Americans of his day, Jolson's work helped many of their leading talents to break into the movies.

Jolson Was Admired by Black Entertainers

Clearly Jolson's standing with the black songwriters, musicians and vocalists whose careers overlapped his own was very different than his present ignominious image would suggest. Jolson was a longtime friend of jazz pianist Eubie Blake, whom he vociferously defended in an ugly episode of racial discrimination in Hartford, Conn. And one of Armstrong's biographers, Laurence Bergreen, reports that "Satchmo" himself occasionally did a Jolson impression (as did Sammy Davis Jr.).

Jolson would go on to make "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," a 1930s film in which the white hero's best friend is black and "The Singing Kid," in which he defied Hollywood's practice of segregating black talent into "specialty numbers," teaming with Cab Calloway for three musical sequences.

"And talk about integration," Calloway enthused in his 1976 autobiography "Of Minnie the Moocher and Me," "We were co-stars in the film so we received equal treatment."

Lee, who finds African Americans complicit in their own debasement by white society, would no doubt scornfully reject any reappraisal of Jolson's work. The message of "Bamboozled" is that America is hopelessly polarized along racial lines. But the colorful, transcultural banners fluttering all over L.A. to advertise its arts institutions--to cite but one example--tell a different story, suggesting much ethnic interconnectedness.

And in the first half of the last century we had a Russian immigrant who became the nation's most popular entertainer; he was a white man who donned the identity of a black, a Jew who sang "You Made Me Love You" to a Christian nation that loved him right back.

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