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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Hines, 57

Is it just me, or is there extraordinary number of film legends passing away the past couple of months?

For most major movie talents, I am happy to wait until the calendar year is over and eulogize them in my annual “Gone but not forgotten” columns. When someone really significant, either to the world or to myself, I do feel compelled to remember them more immediately in one of my regular columns. So far, I have devoted entire columns or parts of columns to no fewer than eight departed film personalities. That is the same number than I penned in all of 2002 and in all of 2001. I suppose it’s just some sort of random statistical oddity, but it seems strange to me. Anyway, I’ve got another one to write this week.

Gregory Hines died this past Saturday at the all-too-young age of 57 (of cancer). The Associated Press called him “the greatest tap dancer of generation,” so it’s not surprising that his stage and movie careers involved projects that exploited that talent. As a movie actor, many of his roles were predictably about dancing. These included Francis Ford Coppola’s tribute to Harlem’s heyday, The Cotton Club; Taylor Hackford’s White Nights, in which he starred with Mikhail Baryshnikov; and Nick Castle’s Tap, in which he starred with Sammy Davis Jr. But he did more in films than just dance. He played everything from the coroner in the 1981 werewolf movie Wolfen to the rich guy trying to buy the church in The Preacher’s Wife.

He also had his own television show for a while and had a recurring role on the sitcom Will & Grace. And with Hines’s death, it has definitely been a bad year for voice actors for children’s television. The Little Munchkin in our house still doesn’t know that the actors behind Luna the moon in Bear in the Big Blue House (Lynne Thigpen) and Mr. Noodle’s brother Mr. Noodle in the “Elmo’s World” segment of Sesame Street (Michael Jeter) have gone to heaven. Now, another one of her favorite programs has suffered a loss. Hines played the father (Big Bill) on Little Bill, a lovely gentle cartoon inspired by Bill Cosby’s childhood.

In addition to his distinguished acting and dancing careers, Hines directed one feature film (in addition to one TV movie, called The Red Sneakers). I was fortunate enough to not only see this film but to hear Hines himself introduce it and discuss it at the 1995 Seattle International Film Festival. At the time, I was sure that I was witnessing the beginning of a new, successful career for Hines and that he would go on to make more films. But his film went nowhere and he never made another for the big screen. It’s a shame because he obviously had a gift and something to say.

His film’s prospects were not helped by a not-very-good title, Bleeding Hearts. His original title was better. That was White Man’s Burden, but it was already used the same year by a very interesting but inferior movie starring John Travolta. An even worse title was later put on Hine’s film, Fatal Destiny.

In hindsight, it is easy enough to deduce why Bleeding Hearts did not find an audience. For one thing, it was difficult to watch because it did not comfortably fit the conventions of any popular movie genre. For another thing, its topic was one charged with lots of emotion for Americans. One review I read of the movie denounced it as racist. To explain why, I will have to indulge in spoilers, so read no further if you have hopes of seeing this film someday.

The review in question based its racism charge on the film’s ending, in which a teenage African-American dies because of a sexually transmitted disease she caught from her thirty-year-old white lover (Lonny). To top it off, the film ends by inviting a comparison between this tragedy and sex tourism is poor areas of Africa. The reviewer’s conclusion was that Hines was arguing against the mixing of the races.

But things were not quite that simple. In introducing the film, Hines explained that he made the movie to show “the arrogance of liberalism,” and armed with this information, we can see the film a bit less rabidly. A key point of the film’s story is that Lonny is a political “liberal” who met the young girl as part of a do-gooding tutoring program. He gets so caught up in the idea of helping his “oppressed” charge that he comes to feel he knows what is right for her, even though she is little more than a child who has barely begun to live, and enters into what is an inappropriate relationship. The fact that this results in her death is bad luck more than anything else, but it serves as an extremely dramatic lesson that merely having good intentions does not mean that you can only do good.

Now this message is the main reason this film never really had a chance. It is very hard for any film to get promoted in Hollywood, especially one as difficult as this one, and Tinseltown is one place where the movie’s cautionary theme about liberalism gone awry would not get a warm reception. Hollywood prefers films where do-gooding white people save the downtrodden black man, as in Norman Jewison’s well-made 1999 film The Hurricane. Whether you like Hines’s film or not, it was definitely thought-provoking in a way that few movies ever dare to be.

So, while we are eulogizing Gregory Hines’s dancing and acting talents, let us also mourn his skills as a film director and all the other films that might have been.

-S.L., 14 August 2003

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