I’m in the middle of reading Zadie Smith’s new novel, and it’s one of her best, I think. It addresses all her usual topics—race and its various mixes, growing up in North London, power relationships between girls, sexual relationships between men and women, the allure of a special talent (whether it be beauty or intelligence or something else), and so on. But in addition there is a new subject, which is dance. And Smith is very, very smart about dance, both in terms of how it feels to the dancer and how it affects the viewer. Here, for instance, is one of my favorite passages in the novel: “…for a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.”
Perhaps I am primed to appreciate Swing Time even more than I usually would, because in December I had an experience that mimics one of the key experiences of its narrator—the experience, in fact, that gives the book its title. Watching Fred Astaire perform in the movie Swing Time, this unnamed narrator is shocked to realize that a “shadow” sequence she had particularly loved features Astaire wearing blackface: obliviously, almost carelessly, as if it were completely normal.
A few weeks ago, fleeing from the inadequacies of La La Land, I resorted for comfort to an old Busby Berkeley musical, Babes on Broadway, that happened to be playing at Film Forum. It was made in 1941, and it featured the young Judy Garland, whom I have always loved, and the young Mickey Rooney, whom I have often hated—though in this case his virtues, and especially his dance virtues, came to the fore. The plot was typically silly, but the dance numbers were terrific, and I was just congratulating myself on having chosen this gem when we came to the final number, which lasted about ten or fifteen minutes in real time and seemed endless. It consisted of about eighty white dancers in blackface, backing up a blackface Mickey Rooney and a blackface Judy Garland—all performing in full Busby Berkeley style, with tapping and singing and stage-craft galore. As if to make matters infinitely worse, Judy Garland’s song (emerging from a white-rimmed pinkish hole in the middle of that heavily blackened face) was all about the birth of a baby named Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. The thrust of the song—the thing we were meant to find hilarious—was the pride-filled mother’s ridiculously mistaken notion that her black son might actually become President someday, just like his namesake.
As we left the theater, I turned to my husband and said, “Sometimes nostalgia deserves a punch in the face.” We had been so confident in our retreat to the past, our choice of this particular alternative to the reduced present, that we had forgotten how naively cruel that old America was. And however bad things seem now (and they do seem very, very bad), I am pretty sure we will never go back to a time when it was ludicrous to imagine that a black man could be President of the United States.