Bojangles (2001)

Everything is copacetic in this biopic of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Best remembered today for his charming dance routines with Shirley Temple, Bojangles, like the actor portraying him in this film, was one of the best tap dancers of his generation. Thankfully, this biopic succeeds in being a tribute to the talent of both men.

 

Opening with newsreel footage of Robinson’s funeral, Bojangles employs the often flawed device of having cast members directly address the audience.  Yet like so much else with this film, it works. While his agent marvels at the crowd assembled for his funeral, the agent’s wife informs us that 99% of them are there to mourn Bojangles, while the 1% who actually knew him are there to pay their obligatory respects to a son-of-a-bitch named Bill Robinson. This dichotomy remains a dominant theme throughout the telling of his life story.

 

Apart from being a thoughtful study of a man who broke through the racial barriers of the stage only to be viewed as an Uncle Tom for his film roles, it is the amazing tap routines peppered throughout his biopic that truly make it something special. Adopting Robinson’s light, effortless style of tapping, Gregory Hines is a joy to watch, with Kimberly Elise as his long suffering wife providing solid support off stage.

 

Helping him get onstage is Peter Riegert as his long-term agent, Marty Forkins. Though the depth of their bond isn’t depicted as successfully as Bojangles' marriage, their last scene together is a showstopper.

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Not so much a fact check, but a repudiation of a statement made by one of the movie's characters. When Bill Robinson discovers his scenes have been cut from Café Metropole, he rightly argues for their reinstatement because of the positive image they promote of African-Americans. As opposed to his past roles as butlers, slaves and farm hands, Robinson is shown dressed in top hat and tails, mingling among high society. Darryl F. Zanuck explains the scenes were removed because the film was too long. Correspondence discovered before the biopic’s making reveals that Zanuck had the scenes cut because he was concerned he would face a backlash from Southern theatre owners and audiences who would not want to see a black actor in a role "elevated above his social status in life". 

Biopic features a montage of scene recreations from some of Bill Robinson’s movies with Shirley Temple, including The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner. Also recreates a dance number from Stormy Weather and one of two scenes cut from Café Metropole. A particular highlight is Hines’s recreation of Robinson’s stair dance, which he performed in Harlem is Heaven.

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