ASTAIRE THE ARTIST, EVEN IN BLACKFACE

 

By Alastair Macaulay

Jan 2011 NY Times

 

 

How should we react today to “Bojangles of Harlem,” the extended solo in the 1936 film “Swing Time” in which Fred Astaire, then at the height of his fame, wears blackface to evoke the African-American dancer Bill Robinson? No pat answer occurs.    

   

The opening image is a coarse Robinson caricature: gigantic shoe soles are upended to show a thick-lipped black face, topped by a derby and above a dotted bow tie. Then the women of a chorus tug the shoes apart to reveal giant trousered legs — at the end of which sits Astaire. The women bear those legs away. Astaire bursts forth, dancing.

 

What follows, though, is no traditional blackface number. For one thing, his white lips and eyes aren’t enlarged with makeup, unlike, say, Al Jolson’s in “The Jazz Singer.” In “Bojangles of Harlem,” Astaire is far less like a cartoon than that sole-face suggested. For another, after the chorus dances in alternating black and white costumes as if to make a point about race, Astaire builds rhythmic complexity to peak upon peak of glory in the last three minutes.

 

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