Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, In and Out of Time

I spend way too much time on YouTube.  I make playlists to which I listen in lieu of the radio, and sometimes I go exploring hither and yon, be it for music, old movies, interviews or instruction (although I will, I fear, never perfect the art of making pie crust).  One day not terribly long ago I happened upon the extended version -- the version I remember -- of the staircase scene from "The Little Colonel," starring (never mind what the credits say) Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple.  Along with the clip itself I found a heated argument about racism, stereotypes and all manner of related issues and nonissues.

Since I had feelings and opinions of my own on the subject, and since not all of them had coalesced into coherency, I decided to respond -- and then found my response by far exceeded the permitted length of a YouTube response.  For a while I did nothing, and then it occurred to me that y'all might find some interest in my reaction to the video and to the controversy it stimulated.  Here, with minor modifications (such as not addressing YouTube or any specific denizens thereof) is that reaction:

A month or three ago I read over 80 pages of comments on YouTube regarding a video clip from "The Little Colonel," and since time has passed, I am not certain whether is in fact the clip in question, but I believe it is.  The comments span four years so I have a lot to address; this may be lengthy.

It's difficult to speak about Shirley temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson beyond "wow they were so good" without going on to put them into historical perspective.  Films are not made in a vacuum.  They are made by, and for, people who live in their times, and when we of later times see them, we can't judge them by our times.  (How will future generations judge our output?)  That doesn't mean we shouldn't recognize and abhor racism and other injustice, and learn from it.  It doesn't mean we should forgive it just because it happened a long time ago (and while MOST white people wouldn't pee themselves seeing a black person sitting at the front of the bus, that doesn't mean racism is dead -- and if you're doubtful, just look how may comments upon this clip have had to be deleted).  It just means we have to attain SOME kind of perspective.  Otherwise we have to dismiss the obvious and huge talent of the two wonderful people in this film clip, and that would be a pity.  There is something to be learned from their transcendence of the stereotype (his character is not a slave but may as well be, and yet he is in charge of this little white girl, and if she could even remotely be said to be treating him with disrespect, watch the whole movie and see how she speaks to the grumpy old colonel, whose heart she finally wins) and something to be learned from the fact that in an era in which a black man's holding a white girl's hand COULD cause such a furor, this film got made ANYWAY.

Some of the commenters have suggested reading material and I will add my two cents:  The Devil Finds Work, by James Baldwin (and after that, everything else he ever wrote, essays, short stories, novels, grocery list, whatever you can get your hands on).  The other suggestions are good too, especially the autobiographies.

About uncles (regarding the perhaps patronizing, perhaps affectionate, perhaps both and perhaps neither habit of white folks calling their male black employees or even neighbors "Uncle," which was under discussion):  I am Jewish (so am I white or not?  By my skin tone, I am about as white as can be without being albino; I am hopeless at the beach, trying to tan; culturally, don't kid yourself) and I was raised to call my parent's close friends "aunt" and "uncle."  Would I call a stranger (of any race) that?  No.  But some black folks today call strangers of color "brother" and "sister."  Was a white person calling a black person "uncle" disrespectful back in the day?  I'm too young, and northern, to know for sure, but I'm not uneducated, nor untraveled, so I can speculate.  I think sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't.  I think a white employer (we're talking about post-slavery here) could call (his or her own) black servant "uncle" respectfully OR disrespectfully, because "mister" might not have been appropriate REGARDLESS of color just because of the relative social positions, and yet the employer might have wished to show affection and even respect; the difference would be in intention and tone.  Calling a black person "uncle" despite not having a relationship with him could be respectful if the black person were older, or disrespectful if said sarcastically or to avoid "mister" (with no relationship, even social position would not excuse that).  It depends, too, what the local practice is for whites addressing whites.  Read european fairytales; children call females who are, to them, total strangers, "auntie" as a sign of respect.  It's not, pardon the pun, as black and white as all that.  There are huge patches of gray.  It DEPENDS.  (I'm still speculating.)  

As for the demeaning roles, yes, blacks could play the funny, silly servant, or a slave in a period piece, or an evil offerer of a reefer in a really daring film.  There is no getting around that.  We're STILL working on that, and only in the last couple decades doing rather well (not so well with Jews -- as performers and creative talent we're overrepresented, but as characters we're underrepresented except as Jews first, people second.  In the sixties and seventies we were either the pawnbroker or Rhoda Morgenstern, and there's nothing wrong with either except when that's all you get.  Look at TV today and tell me which characters are Jewish, and how you KNOW they're Jewish.  Not the actors.  The characters.  But I digress!)  It's painful to watch sometimes.  Take mae west's "I'm No Angel."  In it, black actress Gertrude Howard plays Mae's maid, Beulah Thorndyke.  Her other credits include characters such as "Martha the Maid," "Carolina," "black woman," "black 'mammy,'" "Angelina," "Snowball, servant," "Martha," "Lucy," "Queenie" (in "Showboat"), "Kate -- Mary's maid" and "Aunt Chloe -- Uncle Tom's wife."  "I'm No Angel" is not the only film in which she has a last name, like a proper person, but it's unusual.  As you see, in some she hasn't even GOT a name.  That's how it was.  In "I'm No Angel," Beulah Thorndye is a maid, but she has a name, and she has a musical number all by herself, and it's not a funny, silly one, either.  I am working from memory here; pardon me if I am misremembering, but I have it stuck in my mind that I was impressed BECAUSE of when the film was made, and that she had to play a maid -- she couldn't be cast as, say, Mae's best friend, although she kind of is, come to think of it -- and yes, she had to be funny, and yes, it was demeaning, but somehow despite all that, SOMEONE (I think it was mae) recognized that she had talent, and gave her a serious spotlight in a white movie.  One needs, as i say, perspective.  from small things come great things.

Bill rRobinson probably opened doors for other black performers without even knowing it.  How can one dismiss his role in history -- not black history or white history but just history -- by paying attention only to the fact that he had to play a servant and not to the fact that for three glorious minutes he was featured as a human being and a dancer?  We don't watch BLACK feet tapping up and down those stairs.  We watch AMAZING feet... two pair, in fact.  I'm not trying to ignore Shirley Temple here.  I'm simply addressing the racial issue, a great big issue, a tiny little bit.  Shirley needs no defense; she was a child of amazing talent but she didn't write the script and she didn't control casting.

Those YouTube members whose response to this wonderful clip is to call each other names -- and many comments were hidden, so I can only IMAGINE how unpleasant things got) are now going to be called two names here, by me:  "ignorant" and "immature."