BLACK FILMMAKING IN THE 1930s: “Harlem is Heaven” starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

I have a confession. I rushed through a viewing of Harlem is Heaven (1932) last week, trying desperately to tick off another task on my to-do list, going through the motions without fully engaging. I tend to do that often—getting lost in work for the sake of work, giving into a state of mindlessness. I find that I have a toxic relationship with doing, going, moving. I use activity as a hole in which my soul can hide from itself; a place that prevents reflection and therefore hinders the healing I need and deserve. In work, I force upon myself a lack of connection and everything falters. My purpose. My power. My peace. This is tragic. None of us are meant to be worked to death. None of us need to work ourselves to death. We need rest. I needed rest. Last week, my children reminded me to rest. My body reminded me to rest. My Ancestors reminded me to rest. So I rested, and in doing so, I recognized that all of these loving reminders came from the same source. I am thankful I heeded. I am thankful I reconnected with mindfulness and that mindfulness allowed me to watch Harlem is Heaven again with fresh eyes. 

At the time of the release of this movie starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the American stock market was well on its way to losing 90% of its value and ushering in the worst years of the Great Depression (1932-1933). By 1933, a quarter of America was jobless and the average family’s income dropped by nearly half. Thousands of banks failed and millions upon millions of dollars were lost in bank deposits. Of course, Black folks suffered the most. Now you may remember Bill Robinson as the stair-stepping butler who danced with Shirley Temple, but you may not recall that Robinson was the highest paid Black entertainer in America during the first half of the 20th century. Robinson enjoyed a different reality in his heyday and that’s why this film was such a departure from what was happening to many Black households across the country.

FUN FACT: THE 1989 FILM HARLEM NIGHTS IS SET IN THE LATE 1930s 
WHEN FOLKS WERE LESS BROKE AS HELL.

The movie begins with opening credits featuring the song I’m Just Wild About Harry. Now if you Google this song, you’ll find that it is immediately attributed to Judy Garland and Peggy Lee but these broads only covered the song. They did not write it and Google needs to stop lying! The song was originally written by Black jazz composer Noble Sissle and the music was composed by Black pianist Eubie Blake for the first financially successful Broadway show written by Black writers and featuring and an all-Black cast, Shuffle Along. What made the song so groundbreaking was that it was the first of its kind to break the taboo of public depictions of Black love. ****Post continues below image*****

Image courtesy of Amazon.

As the opening sequences continue, there is a scrolling prologue describing Harlem as the most populous Black community in America with well over 250,000 Black residents. A place where Blacks represented every economic class from the very wealthy to the very poor. A bustling scene where folks of all races all managed to “live, learn, play and pray” together. The prologue also tells the story of the “Tree of Hope.”

If you have ever watched an episode of Showtime at the Apollo, then you have seen the “Tree of Hope.” It’s the stump that all of the contestants rubbed for luck before they either won over the Apollo audience or got canceled by the crowd and ushered out by Sandman Sims. That stump is old as hell and you can read more about it here.

For the next hour, the movie features some pretty sweet tap dance numbers by Robinson and his cute self. It also offers a fight between Robinson and a dude named Money Johnson (James Baskett) who utters my favorite line right before Robinson kicks his ass:

 And if you don’t want any trouble, you’ll SCRAM, see?!?!

There’s a love story. There’s a murder. There’s a knock-down, drag-out girl fight! And there’s a healthy amount of Harvey Weinstein / Bill Cosby-esque misogyny and sexual harassment to boot. Honestly, if this movie had been made in the 1970s, its storyline would have fit right in with the whole Blaxploitation vibe. (I’ll get to that later this month.) 

Another interesting aspect of the film is its brief mention of a product designed to “get the kink out” of Black hair. At this point in history, Annie Malone and  Madame C.J. Walker had already taken the Black hair care world by storm. By the 1930s, both Black men and women frequented shops and salons for hair straightening services to improve their chances of upward mobility with “presentable” hair. It was amazing to see this topic so casually slipped into the film. When I searched for more information about Black hair trends of the time, I also discovered how Rastafarianism and “dreadlocks” came to proliferate in Jamaica during the same decade. I seriously had no idea.

That’s why I love this month so much. I’m going to enjoy some more rest and then delve deeper in the 1930s tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “BLACK FILMMAKING IN THE 1930s: “Harlem is Heaven” starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

  1. Sybil McLain-Topel, MFA says:

    Nikki,

    I re-blogged this. On my blog, which has a puny following. I plan to reblog several of yours this month.

    Hope you are well.

    (Shirley has a typo in it).

    Sybil

    On Tue, Feb 15, 2022 at 7:02 PM HEAVENLY PERSONAL & ENTREPRENEURIAL BRANDING SERVICES wrote:

    > Nikki Igbo posted: ” I have a confession. I rushed through a viewing of > Harlem is Heaven (1932) last week, trying desperately to tick off another > task on my to-do list, going through the motions without fully engaging. I > tend to do that often—getting lost in work for the sak” >

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