The good old BBC has been showing a number of Ginger Rogers films this week, one of which is the 1936 movie ‘Swing Time’, also starring Fred Astaire. I hadn’t seen this particular Astaire and Rogers before, and was delighted to find it way up there with their best (for UK readers you can still watch Swing Time on BBC iPlayer).
In particular, I was blown away by Fred’s inventive tap dancing in the ‘Bojangles in Harlem’ routine. For the sensitive among you, a warning: as the title may suggest, this involves Fred in blackface. Obviously this is no longer socially acceptable and I have consequently seen a lot of internet debate over this routine, with some people saying they can’t even watch it. I think that is a shame, because the choreography and technical skill involved is a sight to see, and it was clearly not done in any kind of mean spirit. The number itself was meant to be a tribute to Bill Robinson (the most famous African American tap dancer of the day), but in reality Fred’s tap style in the piece was more inspired by his own teacher John W. Bubbles - and even his outfit was a copy of the clothing Bubbles wore as the character Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. There is further analysis of the routine in this 2011 article in the New York Times.
The problem of enjoying a film containing blackface also came up when I watched Holiday Inn before Christmas. I saw some comments on IMDB saying ‘why would you watch Holiday Inn when you could watch White Christmas, which doesn’t have blackface’. It made me think quite a bit. Apart from the fact that these are obviously two entirely different movies, from different eras with different standards, Holiday Inn does actually contain black characters and acknowledge (albeit in a no longer acceptable format) black history. But White Christmas is just that – all white. So which can you really say is worse? A movie which contains black stereotypes, or a movie which ignores the existence of any skin colour other than Caucasian?
Meanwhile, although blackface had stopped being used in films by the 50s, in 1961 Mickey Rooney was taping his eyes back to play Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in 1956 Yul Brynner played the King of Siam and John Wayne played Genghis Khan, in 1973 John Gielgud played Chang in Lost Horizon, in 1962 Alec Guinness played Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention the long-held practice of using white actors for the parts of Native American Indians, Arabs, and other races. Why is one type of racism so strictly taboo, while others are now accepted for what they are – an offensive but overlook-able product of the times?
This also made me think about sexism in old films, which doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as racism. This to me suggests even more of a problem, because it implies that although we find cinematic racism disturbing because it is no longer okay to think like that anymore, a bit of old-fashioned sexism is still perfectly acceptable. But like racism, it still exists, it is still a huge, vast, MASSIVE problem affecting people all over the world. And you’ll find it in varying levels from the very earliest films right through to today (the worst offenders of course being films of the 50s).
To a certain degree, when I watch old movies, I have to accept they will contain stereotyped and sexist portayals of women that I have to ignore if I’m to enjoy the film. If I didn’t do this, I’d never be able to watch another Doris Day movie again. Or I would spend my entire movie-watching life screaming in rage. If I want the world to change for the better, I have to concentrate on the things that are wrong now, not what was wrong 50 years ago.
Our social history isn’t perfect, and we still live in an imperfect world. I guess we all have to choose our fights, but for me, a 1930s Fred Astaire in blackface isn’t one of them. Enjoy the dancing!