It was mostly really good... but... uh, yeah... you know.

united states, 1936, english


Swing Time

There is a sadness I know quite well. It’s the experience of really enjoying the work of a particular artist and then discovering that they are, or were, antisemitic. It happens upsettingly frequently, especially when looking at work from the past. Inevitably it colors the experience of the art. All the more if that prejudice is a part of the art itself.

I do not identify as Black, and therefore I don’t really know what it’s like to come across instances of blackface. But those moments where I encounter antisemitic racism are my empathy connection to what I think it might be like. That feeling of weight, of burden, of sadness, of anger. That sense that hand waving explanations like “it was a different time” can never be enough.

So, yeah, the scene in this film where Fred Astaire does a dance in blackface kind of ruined the film for me. Certainly it took my mind completely out of the story for the rest of the running time. Even after reading a lot of apologetic takes that this was meant a tribute to Bill Robinson, and therefore not intentionally pejorative.

I would say it’s a shame, because the rest of this is truly wonderful. But it’s not a shame, it’s shameful, and there’s a huge difference there. I’ve never bought the “it was a different time” argument, because it was also wrong then, and lots of people knew it. At any rate, I’m not from that time, so I can only react with my own sense of right and wrong. That sense tells me that it was wrong then and it is wrong now.