Cab Calloway, featured earlier, was an exciting performer who epitomized what “cool cat” means. As I searched for videos of him and others who performed during the earlier stages of film history, I was also aware that February is Black History Month in the US, and that, because of Barak Obama’s campaign, the US is having some hopefully beneficial discussions of prejudice, both racism and sexism.
Because of this perhaps, I was especially worried about putting up clips of Calloway and other Black performers because I was also aware that part of understanding what was going on in the scenes involves at least some awareness of what is borrowed from, and what is imposed by, White values. And one wants to be able to consider how much the Blacks in some movie are presented as seen by the White gaze. I’m not sure that my reading of women in 1930’s and 40’s films is all that accurate, but I became aware of the fact that I was pretty clueless about how to understand early films involving Black people.
Not entirely clueless, however. There are some very obvious features, such as the restrictions in social status that Black roles signify. The Blacks are portrayed as a doorman or butler not just because the plot needs one, but because that’s the highest status to which Blacks more generally are confined, one suspects.** One consequence is that magnificant performances are painful or sad to watch. That shouldn’t mean, I hope, that we want to lose track of them. So here are two of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who may have been the inspiration for the song “Mr Bojangles.” He’s often said to have been the greatest tap dancer. He did die penniless, and Ed Sullivan is rumored to have paid for his funeral, but New York turned out for a final tribute to him; he was given “a hero’s farewell“.
The last clip is of the very remarkable Ethel Waters. A comment on YOUTUBE says
this was a racial protest song… Look at Waters’ expressions as she says “Darkies never cry, who would ever hear our sad lament, live to laugh, to die, that’s the way we’ve learned to be content…” Turns the whole “contented black folk” stereotype on its head, while ostensibly stating its case. Wonderful early film performance by Ethel Waters.
** Readers may notice that in the first clip, Robinson is portraying a performer portraying a doorman, and not himself portraying a doorman. But clearly in a culture that represses an under-group, having a member of the group perform the role of an actor performing an exalted would is as unacceptable as having them portray the exalted person directly. There are interesting questions here about the logic of the situation.