Bojangles (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Bojangles is a made-for-cable biopic which features some good dancing in a corny old fashioned structure, and which couldn't find a place to hang its hat. It tried to cover about 30 years of Bill Robinson's life, and didn't allow itself much focus on any consistent themes, or any real development of any specific individual incidents. It's a broad brush treatment.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was one of the greatest performers of vaudeville, and later became the highest-paid black entertainer in the world during his Hollywood heyday. He made several pictures with Shirley Temple and a couple more good ones after that, then left Hollywood. He kept working everywhere he could find work, until he died. The film begins with his funeral and, as the procession marches across the screen, several characters step forward and talk to the camera. "Why, I knew old Bill when he was still ....". This structure, the characters talking directly to the camera, continues throughout the film, and eventually encompasses every major character in the film except the little kid who played Shirley Temple. You never know when someone is going to step out of the action and start talking to the camera. There were more corny devices as well. Let me just mention one: the train roaring by while the different theater marquees flash by in dissolves. 'Nuff said.

Because the filmmakers couldn't find a place to focus, the picture just ends up as straight chronological story-telling, but that isn't all bad. Besides the dancing itself, I guess the greatest strength of the picture is that Bill is shown to be multi-dimensional. According to the script, he left Hollywood because the money he was making couldn't compensate for the lack of dignity and respect he received, even though later generations held him up to ridicule as an example of an Uncle Tom. 

The movie didn't do as well with his weak points, and it soft-pedaled them. Bill had a fondness for the lassies, but this is sanitized for a PG presentation, and he is only shown having sex with his second wife. Bill's greatest weakness was gambling, and he died penniless. The story started out by making use of the gambling addiction and its effect on Bill's life, but by the time the movie ended, it had dropped the ball on that theme, and never really showed how he degenerated from being the highest paid black performer in the world to a old man dying penniless. In fact, the exposition of the story doesn't really give us any emotional or cerebral sense of him becoming impoverished. The only reason we know it at all is that we are told with a final word slide.  


It is serendipitous that Gregory Hines is both a good enough dancer and a good enough actor to make Robinson come back to life, but my advice is to skip this one unless you are really interested in the subject matter, which is basically three things: Bojangles' life, race relations before the war, and tap dancing. There's plenty of tap dancing, as performed by the real Bojangles, by Hines, and by young Savion Glover, the reigning king.
DVD available only at Blockbuster and only for rental
There is a real treasure in the closing credits. In the main body of the film, Gregory Hines performed one of Bojangles' most famous routines, a dance up and down some steps. In the closing credits they show a split screen in which the bottom left shows Hines' dance from the movie, and the bottom right shows the exact same routine, step for step, as performed by the original Mr Bojangles. 

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews online

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0. That's too high. It isn't a bad film, but it isn't an especially inspired one either. It is workmanlike. Score should probably be closer to 6.0.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, the film is a C.

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