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.