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The tangled connections that have bound Jews to African Americans in popular culture and liberal politics are at the heart of Michael Rogin's arresting and unnerving book. Looking at films from Birth of a Nation to Forrest Gump, Rogin explores blackface in Hollywood films as an aperture to broader issues: the nature of "white" identity in America, the role of race in transforming immigrants into "Americans," the common experiences of Jews and African Americans that made Jews key supporters in the fight for racial equality, and the social importance of popular culture. Rogin's forcefully argued study challenges us to confront the harsh truths behind the popularity of racial masquerade.
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.
|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|
|List of Films Cited||317|