Today is the anniversary of the 1927 American musical film "The Jazz Singer." Released on this date 85 years ago, the film represents the first feature-length motion picture to use synchronized dialogue sequences. In other words, it ushered in the age of the "talkies."
Besides being known for its innovative Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, the melodious movie is also praised for the performance of its star, Al Jolson. Jolson, a Russian-born singer, played the role of Jakie Rabinowitz, a performer of devout Jewish ancestry who defied the traditions of his family in pursuit of becoming a talented jazz singer. In the process, Jakie turns to minstrel performances, donning the then-popular blackface makeup in an effort to make it big in show business.
The use of blackface, which had become a common practice in the United States entertainment industry in the 19th century, is a critical component of the film, reflecting the complex issues of identity present in Hollywood at the time. It encompassed not only the controversial practice of substituting white actors in the character roles of African-Americans, but also the intimate stories of Jewish actors like Jakie, who sought to make their mark on American culture.
Blackface, as we know, did not end with "The Jazz Singer." The contested makeup method had a life before the 1927 film as well as one that persisted long after. So as we celebrate the movie's 85th birthday, check out a slideshow of blackface through the ages. Used seriously and in jest, the practice has certainly left an impression on performance traditions in American theater and film.
Ira Aldridge as Mungo in 'The Padlock'
Lewis Hallam, Jr. brought blackface to prominence as a theatrical device in the United States when he played the role of "Mungo", an inebriated black man in the British play, 'The Padlock.' It premiered in New York City at the John Street Theatre on May 29, 1769.
Bert Williams was a famous Vaudeville era-entertainer, considered to be the best-selling black recording artist before 1920. In the 1890s, Williams donned burnt-cork blackface make-up with his performing partner, George Walker, in a minstrel act that rose to fame in competition with many of the white minstrel groups of the time.
Konstantin Stanislavski as Othello
The Russian actor and theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski as Othello in 1896.
William H. West Minstrel Show
This is a reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., which shows the transformation from white to "black" of monologue comedian Billy Van. The West minstrel show became known as the "Progressive Minstrel," and is considered one of the first minstrel troupes to incorporate black performers in the United States.
The Jazz Singer
Actors Glenn Vernon and Edward Ryan
Actors Glenn Vernon and Edward Ryan performed a "blackface skit" in the 1949 variety show "Hollywood Varieties."
Dan Akroyd in Trading Places
Trading Places is a 1983 film that tells the story of a wealthy commodities broker (Dan Aykroyd) and a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) who end up "trading places" in an elaborate test of the "nature vs. nurture" debate. In the process, Akroyd performs a scene in blackface make-up.
Chuck Knipp as 'Shirley Q. Liquor'
Chuck Knipp is an American-Canadian drag queen and comedian best known for his female, African-American alter ego, '<a href="<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/AyiOfKTLQO8" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>">Shirley Q. Liquor</a>.' The character was criticized by many for its broad stereotypical representation of race and gender.
Spike Lee's Bamboozled
IMDb describes Spike Lee's 2000 film as follows: "A frustrated African American TV writer proposes a blackface minstrel show in protest, but to his chagrin it becomes a hit."
Robert Downey Junior in Tropic Thunder
One of the most recent reinterpretations of the use of blackface occurred in the 2008 film 'Tropic Thunder.' In the film, Robert Downer Jr. plays an Australian actor who underwent a "controversial pigmentation alteration" to portray black character Sergeant Lincoln Osiris.
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