Sunday, October 9, 2011

The complex racial views of Jess Robin


As far as I know, "The Jazz Singer" (1980) is the only mainstream Hollywood film that can be considered Yom Kippur-themed. (No, "Atonement" doesn't count.) Thus I find myself thinking about the Neil Diamond film every year on Yom Kippur. Just FYI, despite the fact that the film is broadly labeled a bomb and that Lawrence Olivier himself derided it as a "piece of shit," it is considered a classic in my family and can be quoted from liberally by my relatives just as easily as "Godfather" and "Princess Bride."

This year, I found myself stewing over the film's bizarre racial message. To wit:


  • Jess Robin's (Neil Diamond) best friend in the film is an African American singer named Bubba, who is trying to make a living as a member of an all-black band called the Four Brothers. When one of the Brothers gets arrested, Robin fills in at a gig at an all-black nightclub by wearing blackface (see picture above). Yes, blackface. Now, I know this is a shout-out to the 1927 Al Jolson version of the film, but still, blackface.
  • In this same scene, an audience member outs Robin as caucasian. He notices this not from the fact that it's Neil Freaking Diamond on stage wearing shoe polish on his face (no, that was apparently convincing enough), but because the singer doesn't have any pigment on the back of his hands. The audience member (a pre-"Ghostbusters" Ernie Hudson) shouts, "He ain't no brother; he's a white boy!" A riot ensues. Yes, a riot. This was 1980. Every person in that audience could remember race riots in the 1960s fought over things like poverty, injustice, bigotry, assassinations.... This riot occurred because someone discovered that Neil Diamond was white.
  • Robin later moves to L.A. (where Bubba has already gone) to try to break into popular music. His first audition is a big failure, so he, the Four Brothers, his manager Molly (Lucie Arnaz), and others decide to throw a really lame party. This involves Robin singing an idyllic song about the postbellum South ("The Robert E. Lee") right in Bubba's face.
  • Later, after a taste of success, Robin freaks out and hitchhikes to the Deep South, where he fronts a country/western band in local honky-tonk. While he's told no one where he went, Bubba nonetheless finds him, presumably due to some magical negro powers or something.

Yeah, it's a weird movie. It's also ripe for a remake. Maybe they should mix things up a bit and cast Natalie Portman as the cantor longing to stray from her Brooklyn roots. Streisand could play her cantor mother. Just a thought.

8 comments:

marc said...

These sorts of scripts, including blackface, remain common in theater and television here in Spain. I suspect this is so for the same reason it was in a 1980s American movie: a massively segregated society where even the well-intentioned don't meet too many people who are different from themselves. All that said, what bothered me about the movie at the time was that it so accurately captured certain aspects of middle-class American Jewish life, but seemed intent to portray them as healthy. I recall my mom thinking it was a very positive story, while I saw it as more like Ordinary People. I can't watch it even sarcastically.

Seth said...

You apparently took it quite a bit more seriously than I did. Sure, the film gets more right about Jewish life than about African American life, but that's not saying much. The main thing it got right about Jewish life was the importance of guilt as a motivating force.

saribotton said...

Love this analysis Seth. I am often amazed when I mention the film and people get all misty about how they loved it when it came out, and they cried and cried... I count it as one of the greatest so-bad-it's-good movies out there. And I tend to shock people (read: the middle class Jews I grew up with) when I refer to it as a "blaxploitation" movie. See: http://firstpersonsingular.tumblr.com/post/653836731/considering-how-bad-the-reviews-have-been-for-sex

marc said...

The stupid ones are the ones that demand to be taken seriously. Don't even get me started on E.T...

Seth said...

Nice writeup, Sari. But I say let's make it a true Blaxploitation film, with Richard Roundtree as the son of a Southern preacher who leaves his wife (Pam Grier) and moves to Brooklyn, where he finds a shul with an opening for an assistant cantor and marries Rifka.

Seth said...

Marc, I won't mention E.T. if you won't bring up Big Chill.

saribotton said...

Brilliant idea, Seth. I would watch that.

Eric Rubin said...

Just watched it again for the 5397 time and my takeaway was: Molly was not hot and Rivvy was a wet blanket and Jess' music was easy listening at best.