Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

Moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


Race washes lightly through the 1951 second remake of the musical Show Boat without ever touching the sides. At the start happy black people leave their cotton bolls to run down to the jetty to greet the boat. The mixed-race Julia (Ava Gardner) is sent packing for her marriage to a white man, illegal in the state, which clears the stage, literally, for the romance of Howard Keel‘s Gaylord and Kathryn Grayson‘s Magnolia, and starts her own spiralling decline. And by way of a shadow from the 1936 version, Stevedore Joe, played here by the black baritone William Warfield, appears briefly to sing Ol’ Man River against the early morning light as the show boat readies to leave without Julia. The song–by some distance the best in the film–is reprised at the end. It’s colour, in effect, for the slightly breathless showbiz story that populates the rest of the film. 

I don’t want to make too much of this: Show Boat was always a light musical. The 1936 film reduced the role of Stevedore Joe from the stage version, and Paul Robeson, who made the song and the role famous both on stage and in the earlier film, was criticised in a review by one militant black magazine for using “his genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonour, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainments of the Black Race.” The publicity material for that version described Stevedore Joe as a “lazy, easy-going husband.” (Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, also notes that the dancer Bill Robinson wrote to Robeson’s wife Essie, “Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice: just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.”)  

By 1951, Paul Robeson was effectively unavailable to sing the part. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood and the State Department had banned him for travel, because of his pro-Communist political activities. The mood in the country on race had changed as well, in ways that were good, bad and just plain ugly, pre-figuring the surge in civil rights activism a decade later. It made sense, in other words, to remove some of the more stereotypical elements from the story. 

What’s left–and this is the moment–is almost a film within a film, with a different mood and a much darker colour palette, as Warfield’s version of Jerome Kern’s fine song gives the film some air, and maybe a little context, as the river just keeps rolling along.

Civil rights on the Hill

11 June 2011

I’ve been re-watching Hill Street Blues, which is running nightly on Channel 4 in the small hours in a version tailored for the hard of hearing, maybe meeting some broadcasting quotas as it goes.

It was , of course, a path-breaking show which reinvented the television police drama in the 1980s, by foregrounding the whole of the police station, not just a couple of individuals, interweaving multiple storylines and using handheld cameras to create a verite feel. Actually, arguably, it reinvented television drama while it was at it. Aesthetically, even 30 years on, the series feels remarkably fresh.

Looking back at the 1980s from the 2010s, it’s also possible to suggest that the series captured the notion that the American inner-city had become a battle-ground – and that it implied (but never spelt out) Gill Scott-Heron’s argument that in the backlash from the victories of the civil rights movement a combination of drugs and politics meant these battlegrounds were managed through policing rather than politics. Some of the sharpest moments in the show were when Chief Daniels clashed with Capt. Furillo over the political consequences of his policing.

And it also caught, brilliantly, in its (probably) Chicago setting the racial politics of post-civil rights America. We caught a re-run of Lucky Ducks the other night, about half way through the series, where Renko is about to marry Daryl-Ann, whose family is clearly from the South. There’s a fabulous piece of writing in the pre-wedding dinner, where Renko’s Hill Street colleagues – including his (black) partner Bobby Hill, his best man – have turned out to meet Darryl-Ann’s mother and father. It’s like the entire civil rights movement being played out over the toasts. After some speeches from Hill Street colleagues, Daryl Ann’s father gets to his feet (starts 40’30 in), and after a few other ill-judged remarks:

FATHER: ‘… I’ve had the chance to get to know Bobby Hill and he seems like a real nice boy. Best wishes to everybody.

BOBBY HILL: Well now, I want to thank Mr Maconachie and say it’s a good thing he likes me since I’m sure that he’s quite familiar with the old tradition that if anything happens to the groom before the wedding then the best man’s supposed to step in.

FATHER: Well, I don’t know what tradition that is, but anybody who runs out on my little girl and I’m perfectly prepared to take care of her, and him, myself.

RENKO: I don’t know what anybody’s talking about, because you couldn’t get me away from this beautiful girl with a tow-truck.

BOBBY HILL: Oh, that’s not what anybody’s talking about, Andy. [PAUSE]

SGT NEIL WASHINGTON: So, uh, you folks have a nice trip up? [PAUSE] Take the inter-state?

Hill’s character is one of the nicest in the show, but the word ‘boy’ – addressed by white person to black – was incendiary even in the 1980s. You have to watch the scene, because the acting and the direction make the whole story (looks could kill), but the way the conflict is so visibly there, without anyone saying as much, or raising their voices, is a fabulous piece of writing.