The signifier returns to haunt the referent : blackface and the stereotyping of African-Americans in Hollywood early sound film
This thesis investigates the persistence of blackface in Hollywood's early sound era 1927-1953. It establishes the extensive and complex nature of this persistence against previous historical accounts of its decline after the introduction of sound. Specifically this thesis considers the overlooked phenomenon of co-presence where blackface was juxtaposed with the increased visibility of African-Americans in Hollywood film. It argues that the primary historical significance of the persistence of blackface lies in its involvement in, and exposure of, the formal stereotyping of African Americans in film. The thesis is founded on research which identified 124 blackface films and on viewings of 75 of these films. Primarily the argument is advanced on the basis of close textual analysis. In addition to its theoretical engagement with key positions on blackface and related areas the thesis also makes use of secondary sources in order to establish the historical context behind its persistence in film. Principle areas discussed include the formal practices used to racially mark African Americans in film, co-presence in the films of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, and blackface and the racial containment of African-American vernacular dance and music. This thesis contributes to an understanding of the place of blackface in Hollywood history by setting down what is, to the best of its author's knowledge, the most extensive account to date of its persistence in the early sound era. In doing so it brings new material to the debates on the 'nature' of blackface and argues that current attempts to revise understandings of its racial bias may be misguided. In conclusion this thesis finds that the case study of co-presence indicates that one explanation for the longevity of Hollywood's African-American stereotypes lies in the sheer density of their textual construction.