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."


Anonymous said...

As I am aging(58 Yrs,) I find my views of black roles in movies changing. I'm sure blacks desperate to be in a movie, wanted the pay and the fame. In the 60's I thought "Imitation of Life", both versions, were THE Movies. Now when I watch and study the portrayal of the black characters I am appalled at how me were depicted. The black maid holding the white child, instead of her own, reading the bedtime story, tucking the white child in first! In both movie versions it is clear they were two women in dire straits. I think what offends me the most was dialogue and demeanor the black mother had to speak and act!
In "I'm no Angel" Mae West tells her maid,"Beulah peel me a Grape!"
In these times You have the movies,"Friday"& "Next Friday" Just total buffoonary in modern times by "Rich Negro actors" for the money cause I don't want my grandchildren finding it funny how the characters act. I know everyone has a right to an opinion, but people who have made it in the movie industry should care about the images they are projecting. We all know some people like those shown in the Friday movies, but can't they come up with more people of character!
I've been wanting to address this topic for years.

genessa said...

anonymous, i have you beat by two years; i'll be 60 in february. i'm glad you commented!

"imitation of life" was one of my mom's favorite movies; she was, after all, of her age too, though to a large extent also outside of it. one has to be a little outside to make any changes; if you're all the way in, you don't have any perspective.

mae treated EVERYONE in a "peel me a grape" manner! in fact she may well have been making fun of that "superior" attitude. more pertinently, and i actually don't know the answer but i suspect it's "yes," did beaulah know it wasn't a serious request, and treat it as it deserved to be treated?

the modern buffoon roles disturb me too. seriously, if i had grandchildren (as opposed to grandkittens) that's not the view i'd want them to take of black people either! (i wouldn't want them to generalize about any group, come to think of it.) and i SEE white teens in particular taking this as representative, and even cool! and since i stand by my comment that is IS better today in terms of black roles, it's not as if the "rich negro actors" have no choice. there are black writers and directors, and nonblack writers and directors who are not idiots; serious and not-stupidly-funny black roles do exist, and more can be written. the buffoons have chosen money over art.

thank you for choosing to address the issue now, however late it may be. i hope i hear from you again. pardon my being too sleepy to write more intelligently at the moment.


Anonymous said...

Janessa, I'm sure we represent alot of people, and we can keep on commenting on the modern buffoonery
that Ice Cude, Chris Ruckard, Tyler Perry,and others are projecting. Do you think it is greed, and/or ignorance on their parts. I bet their excuse is parentss should censor what their kids watch, because we have the power to turn the channel!

genessa said...

anon (if i may abbreviate you casually),they have a point. the point isn't an actual answer to the problem, but it's a valid argument against censorship. i believe that only education can help. if most people thing it's stupid and unfunny for black people to be stereotyped as buffoons, or as anything else for that matter, or for anyone to be stereotyped for that matter, then it will no longer be profitable to do so, and it will still be done, but far less. censoring it leads to censoring other stuff, and then it never stops. letting the filmmakers know that this kind of crap will not profit them is all that will work, and unfortunately, at the moment, this kind of crap DOES profit them. amos and andy would get only groans these days; let's try to make our nation (world) grow up to the extent that this new buffoonery also elicits groans, and not dollars, and only then will it stop.