Is it possible that anybody hasn’t heard the lyric: I knew a man Bojangles/And he danced for you/In worn out shoes… ?
It’s a terrific song (Mr. Bojangles) that has been recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan to Nina Simone. It was written by Jerry Jeff Walker and, contrary to a widespread misconception, it has nothing at all to do with Bill Robinson, the great tap dancer also known as "Bojangles," who is the subject of a new bio-pic from Showtime.
Robinson was born in Virginia in 1878, when the Civil War was still a living memory. Segregation in public facilities was the rule, rather than the exception, and all sorts of strange and arbitrary regulations were aimed at keeping people of color in a separate and inferior position. On the vaudeville circuits there was what was known as the "two coloreds rule"—no solo performances for black entertainers; at least two had to be on the stage. Robinson was the greatest dancer of his generation and became a big enough draw to challenge that rule as well as other kinds of discrimination. He was also a compulsive gambler and a womanizer. In short, a great subject for a movie biography.
Showtime’s entry stars Gregory Hines (The Cotton Club, Waiting to Exhale) as Robinson. Hines is arguably the greatest tap dancer of his generation and one who has demonstrated his fascination with the history of the art. The best parts of Bojangles are the dance numbers, including a memorable duplication by Hines of a filmed dance by Robinson using an up-and-down set of stairs. (Don’t miss the end titles; Hines’ step dance is repeated with the film of Robinson’s, side by side.)
Starting with Robinson’s funeral (1949), including what looks like archival footage of the event, the film then plays out the biography in a straightforward manner as a flashback. The design of the film is stylized in the manner of Hollywood show business stories, never for a minute looking real or gritty. It doesn’t flinch, though, at depicting Robinson’s weaknesses or using strong language. The screenplay by Richard Wesley (Fast Forward, Native Son) is determined to chronologically cover the main events of Robinson’s life; in stretching for comprehensiveness, the film flattens out the characters and their crises. The facts are there, but emotional impact, for the most part, escapes this script.
An excellent supporting cast helps to keep the energy levels from flagging. Kimberly Elise (Beloved) is charming as Robinson’s wife of 27 years. Peter Riegert (Local Hero, Traffic) adds dimension to Marty Forkins, Robinson’s loyal agent who gave up other clients—the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers—to focus on building Robinson’s career. In a small role as Marty’s wife, Rae, Maria Ricossa injects a spark and finds just the right sarcastic tone. All of these characters speak directly to the camera/audience at one point or another, a device that also helps vary the mostly straight-line storyline.
In two effective scenes, the sad ironies of a long life are depicted. Robinson goes to a club and sees a young performer dance—it’s a new and highly energetic style, unlike his own. Savion Glover, who may be the best dancer of his generation sizzles in the number. Later, in a park, Robinson is challenged by a young political speaker, ridiculed for his "Uncle Tom" roles, the speaker unaware of the battles Robinson fought to get beyond the stereotypes. Progress eclipses and history forgets even a star’s accomplishments.