The great tap-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson receives an affectionate tribute with this Showtime telefilm from star and exec producer Gregory Hines. We’ve seen plenty of these biopics before, and the form itself is becoming a bit tired — they tend to follow the same reliable, and undoubtedly reductive, pattern to condense a life to under two hours. This particular effort, directed by Joseph Sargent, compensates for its standard storytelling with some visual stylishness and Hines’ fast footwork.
Film launches with Robinson’s funeral in 1949, the largest of its kind in New York City and a clear demonstration of how beloved Bojangles was as an entertainer. With the black-and-white images of the procession in the background, the two most important figures in Robinson’s life speak directly to the camera: his best friend and manager Marty Forkins (Peter Riegert) and his second wife, Fannie (Kimberly Elise). From this stimulating visual beginning, the story flashes back to 1916, when 38-year-old Bojangles, accomplished and successful on the vaudeville circuit, met and fell for college student Fannie, who resisted his courtship for a time, but couldn’t protect herself against his unrelenting charm.
A generous, likable man, Robinson was the highest-paid black entertainer of his era, but he was also an inveterate gambler who managed to make money disappear as fast as he could move his feet. Fannie tried throughout their time together to reform her husband and to save some cash, but to little avail. She was more successful in helping him fight to overcome racial barriers in his work, encouraging him to insist on giving up blackface and to fight for more dignified roles when he made it in Hollywood in the ’30s.
This latter battle, primarily against an unsympathetically portrayed Darryl Zanuck (Jonathan Higgins), forms the thematic spine of the movie, as Robinson kept being cast opposite Shirley Temple as the “happy darkie” butler or shoeshine boy.
While WWII gave him the opportunity to headline the successful “Stormy Weather,” Robinson also found himself accused later in his life of being an Uncle Tom for the images he left on the silver screen. He was beloved, but he never really felt respected.
Screenwriters Richard Wesley and Robert Johnson, adapting the biography of Bojangles by Jim Haskins and N.R. Mitgang, manage to squeeze in a good deal of information and take the story through a series of very different time periods — the ’20s, the Depression, the war — keeping an eye on the changing social context of Robinson’s work. In terms of deeper character portrayals, though, the film still falls short, with characters talking to the camera, but never saying much that’s interesting. Pic doesn’t provide a particularly deep view of the man, but it manages to deal with issues without getting bogged down in them.
Hines ages convincingly throughout the film and delivers some very affecting scenes, especially later ones. It’s a thoughtful, and clearly loving, portrait. The dance sequences, ‘natch, remain the raison d’etre of the film, and Hines shows his abiding respect for Bojangles with a very faithful rendition of one of his best-known acts on a staircase. (Tip: stay tuned for the credits, where footage of the actual Robinson doing this routine is set next to Hines’ version.) Tap-master Savion Glover makes a brief but memorable appearance as a newcomer who can show the aging Robinson a trick or two.
Cinematographer Donald Morgan, choreographer Henry Le Tang, costume designer Karen Perry and composer Terence Blanchard all provide standout work in this technically solid made-for.