Not quite copacetic
The scene is familiar from countless show-biz movies. A star—this one happens to be on vaudeville—is in his dressing room, following a successful performance. He leans toward his mirror, removing his make-up, while surrounded by well-wishers and hangers-on. He notes a pretty girl, standing off to one corner. He smiles at her, she half-smiles back. She listens as he tells someone that “Everything is copacetic,” at which point he is reminded that this is “not even a word.” He’s unfazed: “It will be,” he says, and indeed, you get the feeling, along with the girl in the corner, that this guy believes he can create language, even change the world. The camera cuts between them, showing close-ups of their attractive faces, as they’re partly shy and partly impressed with one another. So now you know—this is the couple that will be carrying the bulk of the movie’s drama and tension, and you can anticipate what these will entail—struggles to be recognized, abuses by management, financial difficulties, and on-the-road infidelities.
In the case of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, these dramas and tensions are simultaneously too predictable and not well-known enough. While he’s certainly famous for his work in Hollywood—dancing up and down big white steps with Shirley Temple, leading a super-tap troupe in Stormy Weather—the difficult details of Robinson’s life behind such images are less widely known. This would seem to make the story of this brilliantly talented, personally troubled figure the perfect fodder for a grandly entertaining old-school bio-pic. Tap-dancing, after all, is an art that is both venerated for the skill, hard work, and built-in resistance to convention (in its constant self-renewal) that it so obviously demands, and denigrated for its status as an entertainment too often used to placate the white folks. The conflict is real and compelling. Yet, Showtime’s Bojangles never quite hits its stride. Robinson is here played by the magnificently talented Gregory Hines, who is probably a little too old to be playing the young Robinson, though he surely has the dancer’s moves down. The film rightly argues that Robinson’s conflicts and failings were functions of his extraordinary successes—while he was, at one time, the “highest paid Negro” in show business, he was also subjected to racism throughout his career.
Adapted by Richard Wesley and Robert Johnson from a biography by Jim Haskins and N. R. Mitgang, Joseph Sargent’s film makes these points, but couches them in some standard bio-pic melodrama, using narration and dramatization to lay out a rudimentary chronology of events. These include his three marriages; his longtime relationship with his manager, Marty Forkins (Peter Riegert); his work with Shirley Temple on several films during the 1930s; his gambling; his professional frustrations, shared with other black Hollywood stars of his day (namely, Hattie McDaniel and Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry); and his admirable but doomed efforts to remain on top when he was past his prime.
Sadly, the film begins with an instance of its corniest device. It begins with Robinson’s death, imagined by his then ex-wife Fannie (Kimberly Elise), then cuts to footage of his funeral, attended by thousands of sincere mourners and…. the awkward insertions of Marty and Fannie’s images, clearly not part of the background they are supposed to be observing in person. One by one, the characters turn to the camera and speak their pieces on the dearly departed. Both recall him as “two men,” one, a dancer who brought joy to the world and the other, “an immature, lying, selfish, backstabbing son of a bitch.” Fannie adds, with an appropriate mix of vexation and melancholy, “Maybe he wasn’t a saint.” And so it begins.
According to the film, Robinson’s resistance to sainthood is well-motivated. His early days on vaudeville are presented as groundbreaking and emotionally harrowing. The first time he appears on stage in Bojangles, he’s breaking the “two coloreds rule,” a helpful audience member informs us; that is, he’s dancing for a white audience alone on stage, despite prevailing wisdom that white folks always needed to be watching at least two black folks on stage, one never being good enough to compel their undivided attention. It’s after this show that he espies the lovely Fannie (who at the time is studying to be a pharmacologist) in his dressing room, which means that his career adventures are framed by his adventures in relation to her. She’s crucial for viewers, as someone who is both thrilled and hurt by Robinson—these responses generally form the two poles the film allows.
Further, Fannie is one of the film’s most vocal critics of racism. She’s the one who first articulates an opposition to blackface—which Robinson wears for his act—comparing it to slavery, as an evil “tradition.” But as she encourages him to stand up for his art, he is also having trouble defining his masculinity. The film shows him gambling incessantly (or at least, it shows the results of this gambling, that is, his constant lack of money) and occasionally pulling out a gun, in order to demonstrate his virility whenever his gambling leads to doubts. This is lively, compelling information about Robinson, but it passes by in a flash, as the film moves on to the next episode, say, when he gets married to Fannie (and his brother shows up to offer us a little background on their mean grandmother) or when he gets a call from Darryl Zanuck (Jonathan Higgins) out in Hollywood and embarks on his mini-career with Shirley Temple (Lea Golde). The film goes so far as to show how Robinson looked out for cute little Curly Top on the set, suggesting (politely and artfully) to their blowhard director that the poor kid needs to take a nap.
He takes no rest for himself, however. And the film traces how he drove himself to a heart attack at age 71, ever seeking to be as respected by viewers (white and black), producers, and directors as he was by his peers. Bojangles includes several dance scenes, of course, to demonstrate his genius, and in these, Hines does his wonderful thing, or rather, re-does Robinson’s. Perhaps the most incredible instance of this is a scene where, feeling badly after a fight with Fannie, he heads down to a club, where he takes on challenges by younger dancers. One is played by Savion Glover (whom Hines himself helped to bring along some years back), and their tap throwdown is a joy to behold, old style versus new (heel to toe) style, experience versus risky virtuosity. The contest reminds you why tap is so important, as an art, as well as a sign of skill, identity, community, and so importantly, resistance.