When Shirley Temple Met Bojangles

from the columnists.com

America lost perhaps its most famous child star in cinematic history when Shirley Temple Black passed away last week. Shirley Temple rose to fame in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression and entertained audiences with her charm and smile. But it was her relationship with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson that was unique to not only Hollywood, but America at that time as well.

Bill Robinson, better known by his stage name of ‘Bojangles,’ was a well known tap dancer in the early 20th Century. He played before white and black audiences alike, while making a living literally on his feet. When he first began working with Shirley Temple, ‘Bojangles’ was already in his 50s and had been a legendary tap dancer at that point. The pairing between ‘Bojangles’ and Shirley Temple would not be without its critics however.

Though ‘Bojangles’ and Shirley Temple shined well together on the big screen, their roles were anything but equal. ‘Bojangles’ — true to the form of how Hollywood viewed blacks at the time — often got stuck playing Shirley Temple’s butler. His singing and dancing may invoke some unkind parallels to the stereotypical roles another famous black actor at the time, Stepin’ Fetchit, had to play, but it’s worth remembering that these guys were at least getting work. In 2001, Gregory Hines would go on to portray ‘Bojangles’ in a movie by the same name. Below is the famous stairwell dance scene between Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Shirley Temple.  R.I.P. to both.

When A Producer Has Had Enough

After 25 years of producing films, Ted Hope is moving in a new direction.

On his website, Hope outlines some of the reasons for leaving the field of producing. Chief among them is the increasingly shrinking profit margins and having to do less quality work just to stay afloat. Hope admits that he will continue to produce and develop films, but only those that lift the conversation above the fray.

Hope’s story is not that different than many people I’ve encountered in my now almost 5 years working in and out of the film industry. Many people do get disillusioned. The long hours, tight deadlines and not always knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, is not for the faint of heart. Even worse can be reformatting an idea because the ‘studio’ wants changes or wants to appeal to a larger audience.

Despite all this, people are still making films. You can continue to bang your head against the wall, or find a way to scale it. If the studio says no, find another venue. Whether it be webisodes, blogs, film festivals, or six second videos, people in 2013 are finding a way. Like Hope himself admitted, though he’s leaving the system he will continue to make films, but on his own accord. Many people work day jobs to finance their passions and in this industry, you always got to have a steady source of income from somewhere (the student loan people don’t care about your dreams, just that you pay your bill on time). I don’t find Ted Hope’s commentary deflating, but rather, inspiring. This man is quitting so that he can do what he wants to do without comprising his soul. We should all be so lucky.

The Importance & Significance of 12 Years A Slave

When it comes to the film “12 Years A Slave,” which hit theaters a few weeks ago, my recommendation is to see it while it’s still playing. This article isn’t so much a film review as it is a look at some of the themes at play in “12 Years A Slave” and its larger significance on society beyond the realm of cinema.

I went to see “12 Years A Slave” about a month ago with a lady friend, and at $14 a ticket (Manhattan prices) I was hoping that this film would live up to the all the praise it had been receiving up to its theatrical launch. It certainly did that for me and more as it left me intrigued and analyzing a number of topics upon leaving the theater.

“12 Years A Slave” tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the harrowing 12 years of his existence in America’s ‘Peculiar Institution.’ Through his eyes we see the horrors of slavery up close: a mother having her children sold from her arms, brutal beatings, working on the plantation, and a sense of despair festering throughout the film like rotting meat on a summer afternoon. Though “12 Years A Slave” is the story of Solomon Northup, it really could be the story of any enslaved black person at that time. But because the story is specific to Solomon and based on true events, it simply can not be dismissed as an over-dramatization or the imagination of a director like last year’s “Django Unchained.” “12 Years A Slave” gives an unflinching and very hard look at American slavery and quite frankly, it’s a story that needed to be told.

In the last few months I’ve read articles and heard from more than a few people that they’re tired of black people being portrayed in ‘hardship roles’ in films, such as butlers, slaves or having to march and be beaten while fighting for their civil rights. While I understand the sentiment, I think it’s misplaced. While these certainly shouldn’t be the only roles in which we see blacks play major parts, they are nevertheless important to the education of our nation at large.

Slavery is one topic that I feel by and large the United States school system does a pretty terrible job of educating people about. I remember attending an event for the commemoration of the TV miniseries “Roots,” where one of the cast members remarked that when he was in school slavery was reduced to a paragraph in his history textbook. An institution that affected tens of millions of people and lasted for well over 200 years in this nation, reduced to a paragraph. That’s not history, so much as HIS STORY.

The one thing “12 Years A Slave” does exceptionally well is illuminate this dark period of our nation’s history, even if it is but a small glimpse into a past most would like to forget. At a time when national figures are comparing a health system to slavery and a senator from Nevada suggested he would not be opposed to bringing back slavery if his constituents wanted it (yes, a politician in 2013 really did say this) movies like “12 Years” are vitally important. It has become clear through comments such as the ones above, that there are a good amount of people in this country who truly don’t understand just how terrible slavery really was.

Slavery wasn’t simply not having your freedom. It was knowing that your family members could be sold off. It was knowing that you could be beaten to death and that your life had about as much value as cattle. We see this in “12 Years” when Solomon himself barely survives a lynching only because his owner deems him too valuable to be killed. What is interesting is that more of these stories have not been told on the big screen.

Most people have heard of Harriet Tubman. A good amount have probably heard of Fredrick Douglass as well. But what about Denmark Vesey? Nat Turner? Gabriel Prosser? Phyllis Wheatley? These were all prominent names who either spent their lives as slaves or fought tirelessly against it during their time. I was disappointed when Fredrick Douglass was nowhere to be found in “Lincoln,” but not necessarily surprised.

One aspect that “12 Years” did not leave out, was the treatment of slave women during the era. We see a woman who has her children sold, and the audience is introduced to Patsey who is on the same plantation as Solomon. Patsey is beaten, forced to spend backbreaking hours picking cotton and raped. The sad fact is rape of women during slavery was rather pervasive. I suggest people read Harriet Jacobs’s book, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, which details her struggles with slavery and the repeated sexual advances made by her master. These types of relations weren’t just limited to little known slave owners. While it is well known that Thomas Jefferson was guilty of such a crime himself with his lovechild between Salley Hemmings, less is known about George Washington. As it stands, there is presently a black family in the United States who claim to be direct descendants of America’s Founding Father. According to them, Washington impregnated a teenage slave girl by the name of Venus who was owned by a man who was housing Washington at the time. When questioned as to who was father of the child, the girl pointed out George Washington.

So against this backdrop of torture, oppression, and sadness, there is also a sense of great relief for Solomon as his 12 year nightmare does eventually come to an end. However, there is no such relief for Patsey as the audience is left to watch a heart wrenching scene where it becomes apparent that there will be no cavalry for her. Patsey is a person stuck in circumstances she did not create, and subjected to a fate she doesn’t deserve. I believe in the power of films to educate, entertain and enlighten, and while “12 Years A Slave” is not the type of film to see from an entertainment aspect, it certainly does educate and enlighten and give empathy to those who lived under such harsh conditions for such long periods of time.