August 1, 1916 [A Natural Born Gambler]

I must confess, walking out of the theater I began whistling "Are You from Dixie?" Bert Williams, "Mr. Nobody," may shuffle and grin, but I'm reminded more of Chaplin and his imperturbable fool than the grotesques of the minstrel show. Still, with his blackface and no-account gambler persona, Williams seems suspended somewhere between caricature and character. Despite this tightrope he must walk, he manages to present a nuanced version of the ne'er-do-well, all but winking at us in recognition of the way things stand for his race—but smarter than those who have imposed the caricature on him; and this invitation, at once sly and almost guileless, gives his "Walking Delegate" gambler a surprising freedom, while his solid frame encourages respect—odd, considering how disreputable his character is.

And that may be just fine, in the world of the comedian. I'm tempted to assert that Williams maintains more dignity than Arbuckle (although that may not be asserting much), and he certainly brings to his performance, if not the kind of physical dexterity we expect, a willingness to rock contentedly on his heels at the very edge of disaster. This, I would hazard to guess, is indispensable for someone in his situation: President Wilson does not seem a particularly close friend of the Negro, and the KKK appears to be experiencing a grim revival. Williams, like his brothers and sisters, will need all the pluck he can manage. I will not state much more; after all, I'm just another paying customer, as complicit as any of us, safe in our skins.



A little accompaniment, whether or not you're from Dixie:

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