Remembering Shirley Temple requires us to remember her legacy of Blackface cinema

STemple

The Greatest Generation said good-bye to one of their beloved actors today with the passing of Shirley Temple Black, beloved child actress renowned for her on-screen song and dance performances.

I never grew up with Shirley Temple movies, but we would be remiss to remember Ms. Temple’s legacy without remembering that she was also a star during the height of Hollywood’s love affair with Blackface. In fact, much of Ms. Temple’s fame was due to her status as America’s “lovable” and innocent child-next-door, all pudgy knees and dimples and curly hair; this juxtaposition was frequently played to extreme effect when she was contrasted against actors in Blackface and/or otherwise playing Black stereotypes.

In “The Littlest Rebel”, “The Little Colonel”, “Just Around the Corner” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”, Ms. Temple plays the daughter of a slave-owning family. In these films, all the slaves are happy to sing and dance for their masters, frequently via the “unlikely” friendship between Ms. Temple’s character and that of her happy-to-be-there tapdancing butler (typically portrayed by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson). In “The Littlest Rebel”, Mr. Robinson’s character further posits that he neither wants, nor understands why others might want, Emancipation.

Shirley Temple's character dances with her slave, Uncle Billy, in "The Littlest Rebel" (1935)
Shirley Temple’s character dances with her slave, Uncle Billy (played by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), in “The Littlest Rebel” (1935). Slavery was so fun!

 

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple in "The Little Colonel" (1935)
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel” (1935) in the famous staircase dance scene.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjCFYpWDmfM

In addition to her films with the tap-dancing Mr. Robinson, Ms. Temple also played opposite actors in Blackface, as she did in the 1936 film Dimples.

Shirley Temple dances with two men in Blackface, while other actors also in Blackface look on, from Dimples (1936).
Shirley Temple dances with two men in Blackface, while other actors also in Blackface look on, from Dimples (1936).

 Ms. Temple even briefly donned Blackface herself in “The Littlest Rebel”.

Shirley Temple in Blackface, from "The Littlest Rebel" (1935).
Shirley Temple in Blackface, from “The Littlest Rebel” (1935).

Hollywood in the 1930’s is not entirely the same as it is today, although Blackface, Brownface, and Yellowface still occurs with alarming frequency. However, as we spend time today remembering Ms. Temple’s legacy for Hollywood, let us not forget that her legacy as a child star also includes some egregious reliance upon Blackface and Black stereotyping; a legacy that, to my knowledge, Ms. Temple never addressed later in life. In our efforts to eulogize Ms. Temple, let’s not White-wash over an nearly-forgotten era in American movie-making history.

So, today, we say good-bye to a beloved silver screen legend. And, with all respect to Ms. Temple’s life and her work, perhaps we can also start to put behind us the troubling racial dynamics of the Hollywood that popularized her.

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  • Crystal

    The only way the people who have an issue with it can start to put behind them the troubling racial dynamics of the Hollywood that popularized her is if they stop holding a 1930/1940’s child by Today’s standards. It’s completely understandable if Shirley Temple never addressed it later in life, she was a child who was doing what was expected of her and would have been unaware when she was doing those films that blackface and back stereotypes is racist and offensive especially since in that era it was acceptable. If someone is going to be judged for the troubling racial dynamics that popularized her, it should be the adults who were in charge of her career.

  • Crystal,

    I appreciate your comment but fail to understand the assumption that Ms. Temple shouldn’t be held accountable — as an adult — to at least address her appearance in Blackface as a child. As a child, she was the product of her handlers. But as an adult, she achieves the intellectual capacity and self-reflection we expect should permit her to at least discuss those films and what they might have meant for how race is perceived in America, then and now. Ms. Temple did not live her life a 10-year-old child; at some point, she became an adult. And adults are capable of self-reflection.

  • Sue N

    Shirley Temple was an Ambassador to Ghana:

    “Black said she got her start as a diplomat after an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1967 after Henry Kissinger heard her discussing Namibia at a party and was “surprised that I even knew the word.” Richard Nixon appointed her to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations in 1969, where she focused on refugees and environmental issues.

    According to the New York Times, “When she was appointed ambassador to Ghana in 1974, some career diplomats were outraged, but State Department officials later conceded that her performance was outstanding.”

    She was also ambassador to Czechoslovakia, during the fall of communism, a pivotal time in world history

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2014/02/11/shirley_temple_black_s_unlikely_diplomatic_career.html

    Maybe she was, oh, a little busy actually serving people of all races and nationalities with her hard work, and that was making up for her appearing in a few films with racial stereotypes decades ago when she was a tiny child.

    Whatever it is you’re trying to prove, why don’t you move onto more important matters? She apparently did.

  • @Sue,

    Are you arguing that being ambassador to Ghana negated a need to address the Blackface of her early work?

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  • Oskar Avén

    If I may answer the question…

    Yes. Yes, I definitely think her service as an ambassador to Ghana negated the need to address the Blackface of her early work.

    But even if she never served as an ambassador: so what?

    To follow up on Crystal’s comments below, she was a child in the 1930’s and early 40’s doing whatever her handlers told her. If she appeared in blackface back then, that is not something she should be held accountable for. And frankly, deciding that the occasion of the death of a beloved film icon with a long and succesful diplomatic career behind her is the best time to whine about her not having issued a mea culpa for something she was manipulated into doing as a young child 70 years ago does come across as rather petty.

  • Daveland

    Shirley Temple did not see color as a child nor as an adult. She was close friends with Bill Robinson even after the cameras stopped. She actually did address the issue of segregation in her autobiography and put it in the context of the time. Obviously the reviewer here did not do their research, but rather had a point to make and it had nothing to do with Shirley, who should have been held up as a pioneer for being one of the first (if not the first) to perform an interracial dance on screen.