Here’s a vintage 1936 original photograph capturing Fred Astaire wearing blackface attired to evoke the dancer and Harlem man Bill Robinson, in the “Bojangles of Harlem” solo sequence of “Swing Time”.
The film represents a different time in America. It was released in 1936. That same year, “Gone With the Wind” was published, with its sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan, and Josephine Baker returned to America, partnered by white men in a Balanchine number, only to be ostracized by several white co-stars and censured by the New York critics.
In view of those white American attitudes toward blacks in this era, the nature of Astaire’s tribute in “Bojangles” becomes much clearer.
Astaire dances as Bojangles: