PASADENA, CALIF. — History resonates with images of the smiling tap dancer in black-face, yet few know the price black performers paid to both perpetuate and, ultimately, end these "Uncle Tom" stereotypes. Showtime launches its February Black History month celebration with "Bojangles" (Feb. 4, 8-9:45 p.m.), a movie about the man most knew as Shirley Temple's tap-dancing partner, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
"People will learn what a great pioneer he was for African-Americans in show business," says dancer-actor Gregory Hines, who both produced and stars in the show. "He was one of the first to refuse to wear black-face on stage and ... he broke the 'two-color rule,' which kept black people on stage as duos. They couldn't go onstage in a solo performance."
Robinson also had a troubled side that ultimately undermined his professional success and personal happiness.
Audiences will learn that he worked tireless at charitable benefits and trying to help people raise money, "and they will [also] learn that he was a womanizer, a gambler...," Hines says.
Robinson emerges as a talented, complicated, and emotional trailblazer. Hines says he was not a great fan of Robinson, but acknowledges his debt to him. "If there is any truth to the notion that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then I am definitely standing directly on the shoulders of Bill Robinson. And I would not be here today if not for what he went through."
From a childhood as an orphan who took to earning his way on the streets, Robinson became the highest-paid black entertainer of his time, performing on Broadway in top hat and tails.
Though he appeared in 14 movies, Hollywood was a tough place for a black man at that time.
"He did have a sophisticated image on stage after he broke free of blackface," Hines says, "highly sophisticated in the way he dressed and the way he was presented. And when he went to Hollywood, it changed. Hollywood in those days - it was very difficult for African-Americans to be anything other than butlers or maids or menial workers. That was a difficult thing for him to deal with."
At a time when whites and blacks were strictly segregated, Robinson had a white manager who devoted his skills to developing Robinson's career but also was a friend. "What fascinated me was this black-and-white friendship between these two guys in [such] a time," says actor Peter Riegert, who portrays Marty Forkins, Robinson's successful Vaudeville agent, whose other clients included the Marx Brothers. "It was just intriguing how they kept going beyond this problem of color. I think friendship is really hard anyway, and they managed to find a way to care about each other."
Robinson's story ends in poverty and with little public acclaim. "Bill Robinson, later on in life, did come under a lot of pressure from that next wave who felt that he'd 'Uncle Tommed' his whole career," says Hines. But those who knew otherwise followed him to the end. His funeral procession was the largest New York City had ever hosted up until that time, and pallbearers included luminaries such as Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, and Joe DiMaggio.
"He was exciting, he was different, he was charismatic," says actress Kimberly Elise, who plays Fanny, Robinson's wife of 27 years. And he was one of the first, as the program shows, to pave the way for African-American performers in 20th-century Hollywood.
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