Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson broke some racial barriers while upholding others

Opinion

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Bill Robinson sings to Shirley Temple in a scene from the film 'The Littlest Rebel', 1935. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Bill Robinson sings to Shirley Temple in a scene from the film 'The Littlest Rebel', 1935. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Child star Shirley Temple Black’s life may have taken different turns in adulthood, including ambassador stints to Czechoslovakia and Ghana, but, in death, her on-screen relationship with tap dance master Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is one of her most enduring.

Numerous obituaries never fail to mention the two, although of the more than thirty feature films she appeared in, only four were with Robinson. Their first, The Little Colonel in 1935, and their second teaming for The Littlest Rebel, also in the same year, stand out as the most memorable.

The pairing of the elderly Robinson with schoolgirl Temple was a Hollywood milestone. In her 2012 Huffington Post piece “Shall We Dance? Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson: Hollywood’s First Interracial Couple,” Constance Valis Hill, author of Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History, referencing the staircase tap dancing scene in The Little Colonel:

“She took his hand and learned his steps, and they danced their way into cinema history as the first interracial tap-dancing couple, albeit a 6-year-old white girl and 57-year-old black man.”

Donald Bogle, in his classic book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, writes, “Theirs was the perfect interracial love match. For surely nothing would come of it. Indeed audiences so readily accepted them as a pair that in their biggest hit together, The Littlest Rebel, Robinson played her guardian, certainly the first time in the history of motion pictures that a black servant was made responsible for a white life.” Bogle goes on to call Robinson’s role as “Uncle Billy” in The Littlest Rebel, “the perfect—perhaps the quintessential—tom role.”

And it is plenty disturbing. Temple plays Virgie Cary, the daughter of a Confederate captain and Uncle Billy is his and essentially her slave. Along with the other slaves, Uncle Billy holds the Yankees or Union soldiers in disdain and even uses his masterful dancing to raise money for Virgie to travel to Washington D.C. and ask Lincoln to pardon her father.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the film occurs during Virgie’s party when she asks Uncle Billy, who is also serving her and her friends, to dance for them. After the dance, which, by all accounts is great because Robinson, even in his advanced age, commanded a stage, Uncle Billy returns to his young mistress side to continue in his servant role. Bogle even notes that, in the film, little old ladies comment, “My, isn’t he a sweet colored man.”

During his real life, Robinson was much different than the subservient characters he played in film. For instance, he was notorious for refusing to allow restaurants to not serve him. He contributed to numerous black causes and was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America in addition to co-founding the Negro Leagues Baseball team, the New York Black Yankees. On top of that, he was a member of New York’s famed 369th Infantry, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, during World War I. Interestingly, Robinson played to majority black audiences until he advanced in age. Throughout his career, he conquered vaudeville and Broadway and was a well-known dance icon even to Fred Astaire prior to his film appearances. It is this Robinson that Gregory Hines strived to portray in his 2001 film homage Bojangles.

Although Shirley Temple was generally deemed to be a nice woman and contributed much good in her lifetime, her on-screen roles with Robinson remain bittersweet.

On the one hand, even today, the sheer joy the two entertainers enjoyed in each other’s presence is undeniable and so are both of their considerable talents. But, on the other, it is hard to escape the botched script Hollywood has contributed to race relations in presenting a young white woman as the superior of an elderly black man.

That Robinson comes across as a toy to Temple’s characters, only there to entertain and delight them, is a huge disservice and perpetuates the myth that black people are happiest when serving whites and, thus, are incapable of having feelings and thoughts beyond that purpose.

Therefore, as the world hails Temple for her film legacy as a pioneering child star, it is highly unfortunate that her crowning achievement comes, as many things have in the United States, at the expense of showing the humanity of black people.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.