Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot

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The founding Hollywood movie, Birth of a Nation, celebrated the Ku Klux Klan. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was a blackface film. Gone With the Wind remains the all-time box-office success. From their beginnings, Michael Rogin claims, motion pictures created a national culture by taking possession of African Americans. Blackface, White Noise investigates Hollywood's roots in the most popular original form of American mass culture, blackface minstrelsy. Through its use in films from Uncle Tom's Cabin and Birth of a Nation to Forrest Gump, motion picture blackface becomes an aperture opening onto major issues of American national identity: the meanings of whiteness, the role race has played in turning settlers and immigrants into Americans, and the tangled connections that have bound Jews to African Americans in popular culture and liberal politics. Immigrant Jews inherited the blackface role in vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood; Blackface, White Noise treats burnt cork as their rite of passage to white America. Arguing against those who subsume racial under ethnic identities, Rogin demonstrates that blackface presided over an ethnically inclusive and racially exclusionary melting pot. Juxtaposing movies like The Jazz Singer with such early civil rights films as Pinky and Gentleman's Agreement, he shows how the blackface tradition infected even those motion pictures that wished to repudiate it.
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Editorial Reviews

Energetic, even revelatory....[Rogin has] a robust appetite for cultural connections.
Traces the roots of the Hollywood movie industry to blackface minstrelsy and shows how that tradition has continued to influence even movies that seek to repudiate it. Focusing on the experience of Jewish immigrants, argues that blackface presided over the construction of an ethnically inclusive and racial exclusive society. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
Over-argued, under-organized examination of the cultural significance of blackface in American film.

Blackface is one of those phenomena that time has made almost utterly incomprehensible. What was there about the sight of a white man, "all corked up," performing as a black minstrel, that appealed to audiences? Certainly, there was a transgressive thrill in this carnivalesque appropriation of identity, but how to explain its phenomenal popularity, not only in vaudeville but in movies right through WW II? Rogin's (Ronald Reagan, The Movie, 1987, etc.) answer is that blackface was a way for new Americans—particularly Jewish immigrants—to join the mainstream: "Blackface flourished in the transitional period when immigrants and their children were leaving behind Old World identities and trying on new ones." Rogin may be on to something. From its very beginnings Hollywood was run largely by Jewish businessmen. Again, the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, was all about a Jewish blackface performer. This is tantalizing evidence, but Rogin goes too far when he tries to make blackface into a great Archimedean lever of American culture: "The view through burnt cork places race relations at the center of mass politics and culture in the United States." This kind of sweeping overstatement is typical of Rogin's style. He also refuses to quit when he's ahead. Rogin tries unsuccessfully to extend his argument up to the period when real black acvtors began appearing in films by taking it to absurd extremes. For example, Singin' in the Rain reflects "anxiety about black dance influence." In comparison to his analysis of blackface, his treatment of Jewish assimilation also seems insufficient.

An intelligent but sometimes too clever deconstruction of this strange, disquieting aspect of early cinema.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520213807
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 5/29/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Rogin is Robson Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Ronald Reagan the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (California, 1985).

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Uncle Sammy and My Mammy 3
2 Two Declarations of Independence: The Contaminated Origins of American National Culture 19
3 Nationalism, Blackface, and the Jewish Question 45
4 Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice 73
5 Racial Masquerade and Ethnic Assimilation in the Transition to Talking Pictures 121
6 New Deal Blackface 159
7 "We Could Cross These Racial Lines": Hollywood Discovers Civil Rights 209
8 Conclusion: Abington Township 251
Notes 269
List of Films Cited 317
Index 323
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