On a recent Saturday afternoon, while patrons at the Starbucks on Palm Canyon Drive sipped cappuccinos, across the street a crowd stood listening to a man who’s been dead for 50 years. “If my song can reach your shoes and start you tappin’ your feet, I’m happy,” warbled Al Jolson on a CD player.
The 70-odd fans who had gathered to witness Jolson’s name placed in the city’s “Walk of Stars” looked pretty happy too. As the ceremony got underway, there were speeches by members of the International Al Jolson Society (sponsors of the event), a proclamation read by the city’s mayor pro tem, and a spirited impression of the “mammy singer” by performer Richard Halpern. Fans came from around the U.S. and even England where a hit show about Jolson played the West End in 1995.
Despite Jolson’s durability, few would have predicted a revival of interest in the blackface tradition he personified--but of course that was before Spike Lee’s new film “Bamboozled” opened in limited release on Oct. 6--it spreads to 200 additional screens nationwide today.
A satiric disembowelment of racism in American television, the movie records the tragicomic life of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a Harvard-educated TV writer at a floundering network who responds to his boss’ call for a bold, black-themed comedy by concocting an old-fashioned minstrel show.
Using black actors in blackface of burnt cork, he casts them as Rastus, Sambo, Aunt Jemima and other archetypally offensive stereotypes. Delacroix’s goal is to expose television’s racist underbelly, but to everyone’s surprise, the show becomes a huge crossover success. The film concludes with a miscellany of old film clips that intersperses black actors in their most humiliating moments with famous white stars in blackface.
“Bamboozled” opened to tepid box-office returns and mixed reviews. Among some critics, spasms of white guilt were common. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane bemoaned the images of blacks in films--from D.W. Griffith to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland blacked up; his indignation was exceeded only by that of Time’s Richard Corliss, who said of Jolson that he “wallowed in racial derision.” Presumably nothing less than a posthumous indictment for human rights violations would suffice for the king of blackface performers.
Jolson would be shocked by this vilification. During his lifetime, he was never the object of pickets or protests. Indeed, James Weldon Johnson, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, praised Jolson for helping to promote the production of Garland Anderson’s Appearances, the first play by a black writer to reach Broadway. Among the 20,000 mourners who showed up for his funeral in 1950 was Noble Sissle, a black songwriter and performer who came as the official representative of the Negro Actors’ Guild.
Jolson was empathetic toward black people, as difficult as that might be for Lee or others to believe. (Lee declined to be interviewed for this story.) Reared in Washington, D.C., a city of Northern charm and Southern bigotry, Jolson crossed the color line to perform in the streets with black friends. Later in life he would publish an admiring article about Jack Johnson, shoot craps with Bill Robinson, haunt black cabarets in Harlem, and golf with Joe Louis.
For Jolson, then, blackface was a way of bonding with the African American world, not ridiculing it. As Herbert G. Goldman observes in “Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life,” a superb 1988 biography, burnt-cork makeup liberated “an impudent and joyous harlequin” in the young showman, allowing him to “display an elan no other performer--black or white--would dare exhibit.”
Jolson’s mature style--the loose-limbed, uninhibited dance moves, jazz-charged rhythms and shout-it-out vocal manner--made him the first major white entertainer to adopt black performance modes, anticipating everyone from Elvis to Eminem. It was these black-derived elements, combined with the throbbing wails of the synagogue (his father was a cantor), that made him a seminal force in popular music.
Al Jolson, Biggest Star on Broadway in His Day
People who view Jolson strictly as a purveyor of insulting racial images don’t realize that he too wrestled with the issue of how to create a sympathetic but entertaining black character. In his first Broadway show, 1911’s “La Belle Paree,” he sang a song Jolson fans would rather forget called “Paris Is a Paradise for Coons.” Over the next 15 years, he would appear in eight hit shows, all for the Schuberts, becoming the biggest Broadway star in history. As his power grew so did the magnetism and depth of the black character, Gus the Butler, that he played in every show.
Although nominally a menial, Gus consistently outmaneuvered the white people around him; he was quick-witted, touching, dynamic and sexy, a walking (or strutting) refutation of white superiority.
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.