Minstrel show  

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Elvis Presley was the greatest minstrel America ever spawned, and he appeared in bold whiteface.”--"Ripping Off Black Music" (1973) by Margo Jefferson, incipit

"Blackface and minstrelsy serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style in a series concept in an attempt to get himself fired, and is instead horrified by its success. The film argues that modern black entertainment exploits African-American culture much as the minstrel shows did a century ago, for example."--Sholem Stein

Promotional poster for Wm. H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee
Promotional poster for Wm. H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee

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The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by white people in make-up or blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people. There were also some African-American performers and all-black minstrel groups that formed and toured under the direction of white people. Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky.

Minstrel shows emerged as brief burlesques and comic entr'actes in the early 1830s in the Northeastern states. They were developed into full-fledged form in the next decade. By 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national artform, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.

By the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show enjoyed but a shadow of its former popularity, having been replaced for the most part by vaudeville. The form survived as professional entertainment until about 1910; amateur performances continued until the 1960s in high schools and local theaters.

The genre has had a lasting legacy and influence and was featured in a television series as recently as 1975. Generally, as the civil rights movement progressed and gained acceptance, minstrels lost popularity.

The typical minstrel performance followed a three-act structure. The troupe first danced onto stage then exchanged wisecracks and sang songs. The second part featured a variety of entertainments, including the pun-filled stump speech. The final act consisted of a slapstick musical plantation skit or a send-up of a popular play.

Minstrel songs and sketches featured several stock characters, most popularly the slave and the dandy. These were further divided into sub-archetypes such as the mammy, her counterpart the old darky, the provocative mulatto wench, and the black soldier. Minstrels claimed that their songs and dances were authentically black, although the extent of the black influence remains debated. Spirituals (known as jubilees) entered the repertoire in the 1870s, marking the first undeniably black music to be used in minstrelsy.

Blackface minstrelsy was the first theatrical form that was distinctly American. During the 1830s and 1840s at the height of its popularity, it was at the epicenter of the American music industry. For several decades, it provided the means through which American whites viewed black people. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects; on the other, it afforded white Americans more awareness, albeit distorted, of some aspects of black culture in America.

Although the minstrel shows were extremely popular, being "consistently packed with families from all walks of life and every ethnic group" ( A History of the Minstrel Show (2000) By Frank W. Sweet, Backintyme, p. 28 Retrieved 18 March 2010.), they were also controversial. Integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them; segregationists thought such shows were "disrespectful" of social norms as they portrayed runaway slaves with sympathy and would undermine the Southerners' "peculiar institution". (ibid)

Motion pictures with minstrel show routines

A small number of films available today contain authentic recreations of Minstrel show numbers and routines. Due to their content they are rarely (if ever) broadcast on television today, but are available on home video.

  • Babes on Broadway (1941), a musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The next-to-last musical number is a medley of songs performed in blackface.
  • Honolulu (1939), in which Eleanor Powell performs a blackface dance homage to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
  • Fresh Hare (1942), an animated short featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The final scene, edited out of recent television broadcasts, shows Bunny and Fudd in blackface, along with five tall men in the same condition, singing "Camptown Races".
  • The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), blackface musicians perform a jolly number on the river vessel, in the scene where Captain Clemens rescues Charles Langdon from a thief.
  • Dixie (1943), a film based on the life of songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett. It includes Bing Crosby singing the film's title song in blackface.
  • Holiday Inn (1942), contains a musical number entitled "Abraham" with Bing Crosby performing in blackface in the style of a minstrel show. Beginning in the 1980s, this number has been cut from many TV broadcasts.
  • Hollywood Varieties (1950), a collection of stage acts with Glen Vernon and Edward Ryan in a blackface skit.
  • I Dream of Jeanie (1952) aka I Dream of Jeanie (with the Light Brown Hair), a completely fictional film biography of Stephen Foster. Veteran performer Glen Turnbull makes a guest appearance as a blackface Minstrel performer in Christy's Minstrels.
  • The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. Based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, the story tells of Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), the son of a devout Jewish family, who runs away from home to become a jazz singer.
  • Mammy (1930), another Al Jolson film, this relives Jolson's early years as a minstrel man. With songs by Irving Berlin, who is also credited with the original story titled Mr. Bones.
  • Minstrel Man (1944), a fictional film about the rise, fall, and revival of a minstrel performer's career. It was nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Original Song and Best Original Score).
  • My Wild Irish Rose (1947), starring Dennis Morgan, Andrea King, and Arlene Dahl, is set in 1890s New York and features several scenes depicting blackface musical numbers.
  • A Plantation Act (1926), a Vitaphone sound-on-disc short film starring Al Jolson. Long thought to have been lost, a copy of the film and sound disc were located and the restored version has been issued as a bonus feature on the DVD release of The Jazz Singer.
  • Show Boat (1936), film starring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Hattie McDaniel, Paul Robeson. One of the shows on board is a blackface minstrel act.
  • Swanee River (1940), another fictionalized biographical film on Stephen Foster. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Musical Scoring and was the last on-screen appearance of Al Jolson.
  • Torch Song (1953), starring Joan Crawford, Michael Wilding, and Marjorie Rambeau, contains a musical number, done in blackface, entitled "Two-faced Woman."
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), an early "full-length" movie (between 10 and 14 minutes), was directed by Edwin S. Porter and used white actors in blackface in the major roles. Similar to the earlier "Tom Shows" it featured black stereotypes such as having the slaves dance in almost any context, including at a slave auction.
  • White Christmas (1954), features a full-scale minstrel show number, but without blackface. The lyrics to the songs remove all suggestion that minstrel shows involved blackface, but retain many standard minstrel show features, including the roles of "Mr. Bones" and "Mr. Interlocutor". The costumes in the number are also made to look like watermelons (complete with seeds on the women's sequined bodysuits), a common racist trope following the Civil War. The lyrics to the song include the line "I'd pawn my overcoat and vest / To see a minstrel show ", which model the assumed careless and carefree nature of poverty.Template:Citation needed
  • Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951), is based around a young child who finds a rest home for retired minstrel performers. In "flashback" sequences, a number of actual minstrel veterans, including Scatman Crothers, Freeman Davis (aka "Brother Bones"), Ned Haverly, Phil Arnold, "endmen" Cotton Watts and Slim Williams, the dancing team of Boyce and Evans, and the comic duo Ches Davis and Emmett Miller, perform in the roles they popularized in Minstrel shows.
  • Here Come The Waves (1944), contains a show-within-a-show. It includes a minstrel routine performed by Bing Crosby and Sonny Tufts; their two characters then sing a musical number entitled "Ac-Cen-Tchu-Ate the Positive".
  • Swing Time (1936), a musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers features a dance number entitled "Bojangles of Harlem" performed by Astaire in blackface.
  • Bamboozled (2000), a satirical film using minstrelsy to lampoon American popular culture written and directed by Spike Lee.
  • Masked and Anonymous (2003), set in a dystopian future. Ed Harris plays a blackfaced character in one scene.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Minstrel show" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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