By David Osland
Film historians can pinpoint the precise moment that silent movies were all over. Tellingly, the era of talking pictures was inaugurated by a white guy impersonating a black guy.
Warner Bros’ 1927 release The Jazz Singer was undeniably a huge breakthrough for cinematography. Its central message – that Jews could embrace Jewish identity and F Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties America at the same time – was arguably progressive for its time.
But a century on, it’s best remembered for male lead Al Jolson blacking up, complete with outsized rubber lips, and belting out the big hit number, cringeworthily rhyming ‘Mammy’ with ‘Alabammy’ in the process.
This, at a time when trees across the Deep South bore strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood on the root, in words that a genuinely black – and incomparably greater – jazz singer would immortalise little more than a decade later.
Nobody is suggesting that the clip of impressionist Jan Ravens doing a throwaway Diane Abbott routine as a guest on Robert Peston’s ITV show earlier this year is of remotely comparable artistic importance.
But it achieved wide circulation on Twitter this week, with the bemused reaction of Labour MP Jess Phillips and Anna Soubry, of whatever Change UK were called at that point, attracting wide comment.
It’s not that I have any qualms about politicians of all stripes being mocked, regularly and robustly. The question is what they are being mocked for, and we all know the stereotypes purveyed in respect of the honourable member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
In line with the caricature of Abbott as ‘thick’, Ravens portrays her as a none-too-bright Corbyn loyalist. And again, everybody knows the subtext there; Corbyn and Abbott dated before either of them became an MP.
Were we meant to see the shadow home secretary simpering over a former boyfriend? Diane and Jezza, sitting up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G?
Never mind that Abbott got into Cambridge, at a time when that was even more of an achievement for working class ethnic minority students than it is now. Never mind that she has been a trailblazer for black representation in politics since being elected to Westminster in 1987. She once fluffed some figures on a live broadcast interview. So that’s that, then.
Then there’s the whole question of whether whites should be impersonating blacks in the first place.
There was something jarringly disconcerting in seeing a white woman take down a black woman as an insipid drivelling fool on television, rather than hearing it done on radio. The racial dynamics stand unobscured, exposed for all to see.
If even one of the four people present during the Peston panel discussion had been black, would the room have descended into guffaws quite so readily?
Just as The Jazz Singer can only be analysed in the context of the 1920s USA, so Ravens’ impersonation has to be taken in the context of 2020s Britain.
In a country in which police officers take selfies with the corpses of black murder victims and post them on WhatsApp groups for the leery approbation of fellow coppers, it’s not that far removed from one in which lynch mobs sold souvenir postcards of their handiwork.
It’s a context in which Olympic athletes are stopped and searched for driving a nice car while in possession of the wrong skin colour. What made headlines for Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos is a regular occurrence for young black men in Hackney North.
It’s a context in which the death threats that forced Dawn Butler to close down her constituency office don’t get a fraction of the attention accorded to a brick through Angela Eagle’s office window, widely attributed to the Labour left on the basis of no conclusive evidence whatsoever.
Yet Keir Starmer’s stance on racism has disappointed many black Labour Party members, of all factional persuasions, including some of those that voted for him.
Leave aside the slip of the tongue that reduced Black Lives Matter to a ‘moment’, or his insistence that statues of slavers can only come down by majority vote by the relevant council subcommittee.
Accusations of anti-black racism at Labour headquarters, again with Diane Abbott at the centre of the story, have not been handled with anything approaching alacrity.
Sometimes the symbolism matters hugely, and it matters to the one mass party with a serious antiracist commitment most of all.
Let’s just say that taking the knee looks cooler when done by a young man in full American football kit than a middle-aged lawyer, and leave it there.
In short, white Labour needs to do better, and white Labour MPs need to lead by example. If you’re too busy laughing to call out racism on live television, you’re probably not going to be too good at speaking truth to power anyway.