“Despite the current attempts to whitewash U.S. history, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is the predominant feature of the U.S. experience.” – Charles Musser
Almost from their inception, motion pictures have dealt with the question of cultural assimilation. This was certainly true in America where many of the country’s film industry founders were themselves either immigrants or the children of immigrants, in particular Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.
In “Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties” Yale University’s renowned film historian and documentarian Charles Musser examines this issue by comparing and contrasting two related films: “The Ancient Law” (1923, Germany) and “The Jazz Singer” (1927, USA). While “The Ancient Law” is largely forgotten by today’s audiences, “The Jazz Singer” achieved lasting fame for being the first (partially) talking picture and lasting notoriety for star Al Jolson’s performance in blackface, deemed racist by modern sensibilities.
In E. A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law,” the Orthodox Jew Baruch Mayer leaves a shtetl in Galicia for Vienna. Mayer pursues a career as a stage actor, much to the consternation of his conservative parents. Released four years later, Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer” was based in part on a hit play but was also a loose adaptation of the earlier film. Baruch Mayer becomes Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his strict cantor father to pursue a career as a cabaret singer after changing his name to Jack Robin. “The Jazz Singer” was an immediate hit and made Jolson a star overnight. Musser’s research refutes the commonly-held notion that Jolson was himself a racist, citing his and the film’s popularity with African American audiences at the time. Jolson was considered a friend by the African American community who advocated hiring black actors for stage roles, and his blackface performances were seen as positive portrayals by the very people we assume were offended.
Further, Musser argues that the depictions of the assimilation process in both films were essentially optimistic. In each case the protagonist is able to maintain or reclaim their cultural identity in spite of prevailing attitudes, and to cross the line between two uneasily co-existing cultures without the necessity of fully assimilating into either. Both films are also idealistic in the sense that they downplay the toxicity of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Nevertheless, they (sadly) retain their relevance in the modern world.
Watch — Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties: From The Ancient Law to The Jazz Singer with Charles Musser – Holocaust Living History Workshop
Imagine a world that is more just, laws that are more compassionate and people being freer.
Georgetown Law professor and author Paul Butler is very familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system. As a former prosecutor, he once fought for long sentences. Now he’s advocating for the abolition of prisons. While that sounds extreme, in this talk he explores what would replace prisons, how people who cause harm could be dealt with in the absence of incarceration, and why abolition would make everyone safer and our society more just.
Incarceration is a relatively recent development in the history of punishment, with the first modern prison constructed in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. The American penitentiary was intended as a reform, making the institution of punishment more humane and rehabilitative. Because the United States now locks up more people than almost any country in the history of the world, this nation is perhaps the best laboratory to assess the success of the experiment. By virtually any measure, prisons have not worked. They are sites of cruelty, dehumanization, and violence, as well as subordination by race, class, and gender. Prisons traumatize virtually all who come into contact with them. Is there a better way? He posits that 50% of the prison population could be released and we would feel no effect.
Butler frequently consults on issues of race and criminal justice. He feels the system is broken and advocates for non-violent drug offenders to receive treatment rather than punishment. Abolition of prison could be the ultimate reform. Butler is not saying there should be no consequences for criminality. He calls it gradual decarceration and looks at ways to accomplish the goals of prison more effectively.
Butler is a Professor in Law at Georgetown. His most recent book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, published in July 2017, was named one of the 50 best non-fiction books of 2017 by The Washington Post. The New York Times described Chokehold as the best book on criminal justice reform since The New Jim Crow. It was a finalist for the 2018 NAACP Image Award for best non-fiction.
Watch — Prison Abolition, and a Mule with Paul Butler
Myrlie Evers-Williams became a prominent social justice activist after the murder of her husband, civil rights activist Medger Evers. For more than five decades, she has continued to carry on his legacy, never relenting in her determination to change the face of race relations in this country. To many, she has become a symbol of courage and perseverance.
She reflects here on the impact of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and calls on today’s Americans to continue her quest to quash racism and bring equality for all.
Ruminating on her long journey, in a soft voice, Evers-Williams said to herself, “you are not through yet.” And with her voice getting stronger, she said to the audience, “And I say to all of you, you are not through either… as long as America has the challenge of prejudice and racism in this country that is supposed to be a place free for all of us, to do and be the best that we can do, we have a challenge.”
This heartfelt talk was presented by Thurgood Marshall College, the Helen Edison Lecture Series and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UC San Diego.
Watch Tomorrow’s Leaders: Building on the Legacy of Selma with Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Browse more programs from the Helen Edison Lecture Series.