Earlier this week the famous Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time aired on Turner Classic Movies. The film is very much like every Fred and Ginger musical, it’s a romantic musical with fancy footwork and a cute story but in the midst of all the Astaire and Rogers glitz and glamour comes a moment where you can’t help but cringe: a blackface number.
Fred Astaire performing his “Bojangles of Harlem” dance solo in Swing Time. Astaire intended for the number to be an homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson but many call it a caricature because of Astaire’s use of Blackface.
For die-hard classic movie fans, this isn’t anything new but it always provokes an uncomfortable feeling. While watching the film and said scene, I was surprised to see a number of tweets sent to TCM’s account calling for a boycott of the film saying it was “insensitive to show it” and calling TCM “shameful” for not editing out the scene. Here’s what you need to remind yourself when you watch a classic film: you can not watch it with modern eyes. If you turn on Swing Time, you have to take yourself back to 1936. The same applies to other films with racist tones like Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, King Kong, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Lady from Shanghai, The Littlest Rebel, Holiday Inn, this list is only the beginning.
Caucasian actor Mickey Rooney dons false teeth and squints his eyes behind thick rimmed glasses to play the Japanese character, Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). His portrayal has been called by some “the Asian version of Blackface.”
Film, like any work of art, represents the time of its production. To view it and understand it, you have to remember its context. What I love about film is that it teaches us about our society at the time. American cinema takes us to place we’ve never dreamed of going and it also represent pieces of history. The same thing applies to literature. I’ve personally lost count the number of times I’ve gotten squeamish when I came across the N-word in classic literature. In immersing ourselves into these stories, we are able to get a glimpse of what the world looked like back then and unfortunately, it’s not all that pretty.
To call for censorship or a ban on these films is the same thing as pretending this wasn’t the harsh reality of the time period. In order for us to grow as a society, we must be able to look at our past and learn from it. But as I look at cinema today, it’s hard to keep using this excuse for our past when we can argue that much of the same continues in the present.
The awful truth is that we are still seeing some of the same racial undertones just in different forms in American cinema today. It’s not as in your face as Blackface but diversity in film often reflects stereotypes of different cultures. We are still seeing Hispanic people playing typical Hispanic roles like maids, crooks, and loud sidekicks; we are seeing White men and women lead films, we’re still seeing people of color playing supporting characters and we aren’t seeing diversity in other races that make up ensemble casts. There are millions of stories that need to be told, why is money being wasted on remaking stories that have been told time and again?
I saw the outrage when Ava Duvernay wasn’t nominated in the Best Director Oscar category for “Selma” and the social media campaign of #Oscarssowhite but to me that wasn’t about award season. You see, I want to see diversity in films become the norm. Diversity onscreen would be an accurate representation of the age we are currently living in. At some point the films of today are going to be the new classics, the films that will be taught to future filmmakers. We need diversity in film so that a Caucasian Natalie Wood doesn’t wear tan makeup to portray a Puerto Rican (West Side Story), Caucasian Jennifer Jones doesn’t wear heavy eyeliner to portray a Eurasian (Love is a Many-Splendored Thing), and Caucasian Humphrey Bogart doesn’t portray a Mexican bandit (Virginia City). In 20 or 30 years from now when the new generation looks back, I want them to see these pieces of art reflect the way we live now. In order to do that we need diverse storytellers telling diverse stories.