We recently came through the usual Halloween bag of “blackface” controversies, and Ethics Alarms, as it has before, tried to guide the discussion to the material distinctions that social justice warriors, who strategically deal in absolutes when seeking power through real and contrived offense, refuse to acknowledge or are intellectually incapable of doing so. The short version of the Ethics Alarms message: make-up for legitimate theatrical purposes isn’t “blackface,” isn’t “racist,” and shouldn’t be object of knee jerk condemnation based on emotion or ignorance.
Today Turner Movie Classics showed “Swing Time,” the 1936 musical that is probably the high water mark in the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire canon. It has the best song (“The Way You Look Tonight”), the best novelty scene (Astaire pretending to be a klutz in a dance lesson with Ginger, then shocking her and her boss—and saving her job— by showing “what a great teacher she is” by dancing, well, like Fred Astaire) and arguably two of the best dances by the two, “Never Gonna Dance” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” The film also contains a controversial “blackface” number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” in which Fred pays homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. Local TV stations have long been reluctant to show “Swingtime” because of guaranteed complaints that the number is racist, or, if they cut the number (which is unconscionable), complaints pour in from film and Astaire fans that they have defaced a classic out of misplaced political correctness.
If one argues that the number is “racist” because of Fred’s make-up, then one is necessarily arguing that no white performer can ever offer an admiring salute to an African-American great by emulating him. Astaire’s choreography (by Hermes Pan) contained specific references to trademark steps and gestures by both Bubbles and Robinson, though more of the former than the latter. (Some would say, maybe even Fred, that this was because he didn’t dare set himself up to be compared to Robinson, whom many regard as the greatest tap-dancer of them all.) Blackface, as typified by minstrel shows, was a burlesque of negative black stereotypes. There isn’t a hint of this in Astaire’s number: he wears dark make-up because he is honoring two contemporary black dance stars who he knew, learned from, and respected. The make-up is the epitome of a legitimate theatrical device, and racially demeaning neither in intent nor effect. Those who see it as such are either deliberately misconstruing the number, or don’t know what they are talking about. (There is an unfortunate racially demeaning set piece that appears for a couple of seconds at the start, a large caricature of exaggerated black features. You can take the film out of 1936, but you can’t take 1936 out of the film.)
The ironic part of the effort to quarantine “Bojangles of Harlem” is that the number is one of the few reminders in our culture of who Bill Robinson was, and—here’s Jack on his “duty to remember” and cultural literacy soapbox again–he was an important figure in American theatrical, cultural and civil rights history that should be remembered. Instead, Robinson is almost completely forgotten: I bet most of the NAACP members who get up in arms when TMC shows “Swing Time” have no idea how significant Robinson was, and the contributions he made to art and society.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1877 – November 25, 1949) was the best known and most highly paid African-American entertainer in the country until his death. He excelled in vaudeville, on Broadway, recordings and radio, and only the film industry’s apartheid for most of his career limited his success in Hollywood. Robinson is credited with revolutionizing tap with his graceful, fluid style. lightness and presence. There was far more to his career than his famous dance numbers with little Shirley Temple in several films during the 1930s, which is how most white audience members knew him. He and Shirley were the first inter-racial dance couple in film history in 1935’s “The Little Colonel.”
Robinson used his popularity to begin toppling other racial barriers. He became one of the first black vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup. Vaudeville also had a rigid “two colored rule,” preventing black performers from appearing without a white partner: Robinson went solo and killed the restriction. He was also the first African American to headline a Broadway a mixed-race production.
Robinson was an activist off the stage as well. He is credited with persuading the Dallas police department to hire its first African-American policemen. During World War II ,
he lobbied FDR to change the army’s policies regarding African-American soldiers, and helped organize a fundraiser that was the first integrated public event to take place in Miami. He was also credited with helping out or advancing the careers of Lena Horne, Jesse Owens, the Nicholas Brothers, Ann Miller and others, including Fred Astaire.
But most of all, he could really tap. Here is his signature “Step dance,” which was much borrowed and adapted by famous and not so famous tappers…
Besides “Swing Time,” the other remaining cultural reference to Robinson is the song, “Mr. Bojangles,” most famous as a standard song and dance number in the repertoire of Sammy Davis, Jr. (I know: “Who?“), who also knew Robinson and was influenced by him. The only aspects of that song—which was also a hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band— that relate to Bill Robinson is the old man’s name and the song’s theme of dancing: the real Bojangles didn’t drink, and never had a dog.
Robinson did end up broke like the dancer in the song, though. Despite making millions during his career, he had a gambling problem, and when he died penniless in 1949, Robinson’s friend Ed Sullivan (“Who’s Ed Sullivan?”) financed a funeral worthy of his achievements in life. Robinson lay in repose at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in Harlem and an estimated 32,000 people filed past his open casket to pay their respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the service, which was broadcast over the radio. New York Mayor William O’Dwyer gave the eulogy.
Here is Fred, paying his respects:
[A subsequent post about John Bubbles is here.]