by Robert L. Pest
Cut, no. 17, April 1978, pp. 9-10
AMERICAN SHOESHINE, produced and directed by Sparky Greene, is a film of conflicting tendencies. For most of its thirty minutes, this short documentary undertakes an examination of the socioeconomic forces underlying both the origins and the continued existence of the shoeshine occupation. Using an expertly edited montage of first-hand accounts, stills, and "found" footage, some of which dates to the first decade of this century, filmmaker Sparky Greene follows the shoeshine business from the earliest days to the present, focusing on the gradual development of shoeshining as an occupation reserved almost exclusively for blacks. The shoeshine men themselves provide both history and analysis, often articulating highly developed views on the nature of both class and racial relations in American society.
But during the last third of the film, AMERICAN SHOESHINE moves away from this economic focus to become a showcase for individual exhibitions of "rag poppin," the musical effects achieved by "popping" a shoeshine rag. While this activity is not a problem in itself, the upbeat presentation of the history of rag popping as a way to get better tips, along with the uncritical inclusion of several "Step'n'Fetch It" type numbers to the accompaniment of rag popping, suggests a failure to consider the social implications of such self-debasing performances. That Greene was aware of this problem cannot be denied. One of the skilled practitioners of rag popping who appears in this film confesses that many people accuse him of being an Uncle Tom. Yet Greene seems to share with this man the view that, as an "art," rag popping is exempt from such considerations and that, like any art, it confers a special dignity on its masters. Had Greene chosen to confront, or at least acknowledge, the contradictions of this position, AMERICAN SHOESHINE would have been a different, and perhaps better, film. But as it is, AMERICAN SHOESHINE is still a direct and effective portrait of the history and practice of a unique occupation, the very existence of which reveals a great deal about the economic and social structure of American society.
The film's soundtrack consists almost exclusively of short, apparently casual comments made by the shoeshine men, sometimes on camera but more often in conjunction with related film footage and stills. Although the men who appear in the film represent something like a cross-section of the adults involved in shoeshining, the majority of those who speak at any length are older, thoughtful, and articulate. These men relate more than the history of shoeshining; they also share the wisdom born from years of trying to survive in a racist economy. Much of the power of AMERICAN SHOESHINE comes from the honest conviction and natural poise with which these men relate the details of their lives. Perhaps their friendly openness stems from the fact that they were filmed at their shops and stands, usually while working. For as the film develops, we discover that the workplace is often the only place where these men feel at home. One also suspects that many of them participated in the film out of a desire to better understand their curious position in society and particularly to come to terms with their own reasons for remaining in a job which both blacks and whites consider demeaning. Because this process of self-examination is so obviously at work in the film, and because Greene handles it in a compassionate and sympathetic way, the process of self-revelation never embarrasses either the shoeshine men or the audience.
But equally impressive in its honesty is the way that Greene structures these bits and pieces of experience and observation to reflect his own process of coming to terms with the material. The film is divided into three sections: the first focuses on the history of shoeshining, the second on the aspirations and ideals of the shoeshine men, and the third on rag popping. Each section develops slowly, almost randomly, until the first-person sections and the accompanying footage gradually achieve a convincing unity. Greene thus shares, in an unpretentiously reflexive fashion, his own excitement in discovering the connections among thousands of feet of film and hours of interviews.
The first section of the film deals with the history of shoeshining. Significantly, the primary speaker in this section is an Italian (the only non-black shoeshine man to appear in the film). While the screen offers various views of turn-of-the-century America, the Italian explains that the first shoeshiners were Greek and Italian immigrants. Only as these "new Americans" became assimilated into the mainstream did blacks, primarily displaced field-hands and sharecroppers, move into shoeshining. But the peculiar character of shoeshining dates from the entry of blacks into the profession.
The treatment of shoeshine men as "boys," as one veteran sadly implies, is no different from the man-child status of blacks during slavery. Greene uses footage of cotton picking and riverboat unloading to stress the connection between shoeshining and the Old South. For, as one of the film's subjects later comments, the "porter" professions, including shoeshining, were simply the North's way of dealing with the large-scale northern movement of Southern blacks at the turn of the century, a way of changing the appearance of racial relations without altering their essentially oppressive nature. By focusing on these points, Greene suggests that both the surplus labor that gave birth to such a nonessential occupation and the social attitudes that made such blatantly hierarchical encounters possible have their roots in the Old South.
But at no point does the film move away from the concrete experience of the shoeshine men. Historical reality takes an added meaning when seen from the viewpoint of personal experience. Thus, the best analysis of the movement of blacks into shoeshining is offered by one man who cares little for historical forces: "I got hungry, that's how I got started. You get hungry, you'll do anything, you know."
But the history of shoeshining is also a history of men refusing to conform to the demands of the wage-labor system and refusing to abandon their ties to the community. Although many of the men interviewed seem defensive about the lack of status accorded shoeshiners, all of them seem to value their independence more than status. As one man proudly observes, "Nobody's looking over my shoulder." The job also seems to allow for considerable interaction with the community; in several cases the shoeshine stand serves as a center for community activities. One would certainly not want to deny that the relative independence of the shoeshine men is primarily a function of their peripheral relation to the economy. But the men in AMERICAN SHOESHINE value this independence, and transform it in many different ways to reflect their own personalities and to project their own values.
The second and longest section of the film is devoted to a series of individual portraits of shoeshine men. The aim here seems to be to explore, in a gentle but insistent way, the contradictions of the shoeshine men's own thinking. By far the most revealing insight arises from several of the older men who, while allegedly proud of their work, refuse to let their sons take it up. The extent to which these men have internalized the ideology of mobility is made devastatingly clear when one man reports a conversation with his son. When the son asked if he could shine shoes, the father responded, "If I ever hear talk of you gonna shine shoes, I'll break your hands." Others acknowledge their acceptance of middle-class thinking by the titles they insist upon — "boot black" or "leather finisher." Still others seem to pride themselves on being able to tell a person of "quality" by his shoes. Throughout this section one is made aware of the tension between some sort of awareness of economic realities, on the one hand, and a well-conditioned good humor, on the other. Smiles bring tips and even when discussing serious matters, Sparky Greene's shoeshine men smile.
But there are cracks in the smile — revealing cracks. One shoeshiner observes that "big business" types are the worst tippers. Some even hold a few dollars in their hands during the shine in an effort to get especially good treatment. But when the time to pay comes, the shoeshine man is lucky to get "fifteen cents." The tale of Beau Jack, a shoeshiner who became a lightweight boxing champion, makes a similar point about "pie in the sky." Whether shining a white man's shoes or boxing in a white man's ring, Beau Jack gets only the share of the pie that others decide to give him. When his career ended, Beau Jack found himself shining shoes again; his managers had "taken all his money." The appearance of Beau Jack in the film, his scarred face the only remaining testimony to his boxing career, is more than pathetic. For when he comments that the only thing he ever enjoyed besides boxing was shining shoes, Beau Jack is in fact making an indirect but significant comment on the lack of opportunities, the limitations, and the manipulation which black Americans not only experience but often come to accept.
While the critical comments of the shoeshine men do not indicate or imply recognition of their oppressive situation, they do suggest that at least some of them are beginning to question the "smile" approach to economic survival. The fact that several lament the steadily shrinking number of shoeshine men also suggests that a concern for self-respect and racial pride is driving young men away from shining shoes. But Greene is uninterested in why people do not shine shoes. His concern is with those who do, whatever their reasons and however inadequate their analysis of their condition. This questionable focus, a concern with how people cope with a situation rather than with how they can change it, implies an acceptance of shoeshining as "interesting" or "quaint." It does not, unfortunately, lead to any challenge of the vertical social relations that support shoeshining.
In the third section of the film, Greene moves farther away from questions of pride and consciousness and into a discussion and display of rag popping. Rag popping is presented as a way of "coping." The "turtle dance," the most sophisticated form of rag popping, seems to have arisen as a way of getting bigger tips. "Pop the rag, they'll pop the money in your pockets." But in an occupation which allows little originality, rag popping became a form of personal expression, a way to distinguish oneself from one's peers. But the manner of expression is not neutral; rather, it is both personally and racially demeaning. The various dances and routines connected with rag popping embody the most vicious racial stereotypes. The principal "bug dancer" in the film acts drunk and foolish while dancing to the beat of the rag. Two other featured performers, Pork Chop and Kidney Pie, gained national recognition for their rag popping numbers. But their attire and their routine suggest that the real appeal of their act was in its insulting racial humor.
Greene's one-sided treatment of the "art" of rag popping might be seen as nothing more than an extension of the film's central preoccupation with how to cope with a dreary situation. But when a veteran rag popper talks about being called an Uncle Tom, the inherent weakness of Greene's position becomes clear. For no matter how "artistic" or gratifying an activity is, it cannot be treated independently of the social relations it both reflects and maintains. The racial stereotypes (ranging from "natural rhythm" to "devoted domestic"), reinforced by rag popping, extend far beyond the world of the shoeshiners. No tip is big enough to justify personal and racial debasement.
The weakness of the third section of AMERICAN SHOESHINE is the direct result of the filmmaker's affection for his subjects. AMERICAN SHOESHINE is the shoeshine men's film; Greene obviously felt that rag popping was part of their story. But affection alone is not sufficient for dealing with a complex social and economic situation. Working people have always developed ways of making both work and the workplace more bearable. Often these psychologically necessary diversions develop into a form of their own. But activities like rag popping do not transform relations of labor, they maintain them. The shoeshine men in AMERICAN SHOESHINE have reason to be proud of their rag popping skills, but they also have other, more basic reasons to be proud and other, more significant struggles to engage in.
AMERICAN SHOESHINE is distributed by Perspective Films, 369 West Erie Street, Chicago, IL 60610