At 7 PM this Friday at the Stony Island Arts Bank, Black Cinema House will present a program of two superb short documentaries, Sparky Greene’s American Shoeshine (1976) and Eleva Singleton’s Shinemen (2015). Both films consider the social significance of shining shoes, particularly in Chicago. American Shoeshine offers a panoramic view, interviewing a number of shoe shiners and addressing the history of shoe shining as an industry. Shinemen, on the other hand, focuses on one individual, Bill Williams, who owned a few shine shops in town and worked for the Chicago tourism bureau for three decades. (Williams will attend the screening along with Singleton and the film’s cinematographer, Ahmed Hamad.) The films both display great affection for their subjects and advance an engaging, even musical aesthetic. They present shining shoes not just as a job, but as an art form, the rhythm of the shinemen’s towels providing a jaunty backbeat for the social lessons.
American Shoeshine even begins with a shoe shiner singing while he slaps his towel, suggesting that the film will be structured like a song. This singing gives way to a testimony from another shiner, who explains that he turned to shining shoes at an early age to support himself after his parents died. With these two shots, Greene addresses both the joy of shining shoes and the economic desperation that drove some people to take it up. After presenting another short testimony, Greene delves into the history of the shine industry, displaying vintage photographs of early-20th-century American metropolises while another man explains in voice-over how his immigrant family looked for opportunity in the United States a few generations ago. Shining shoes seems like a step toward upward social mobility for those who desired it.
The job had been an opportunity for European immigrants in the early part of the century, another interviewee explains, but after World War II (when immigrants and their children began to enter other fields), African-Americans began to dominate the shoe-shining industry. American Shoeshine largely considers this generation of shiners, who brought a sense of musicality and bonhomie to their work. Greene deftly intercuts jolly interviews with African-American shoe shiners with archival footage of African-Americans picking cotton, conveying in a few images the northward migration of blacks in the early 20th century and the lives that they left behind in the South. The editing of American Shoeshine is clever, employing juxtapositions like these to relate modern-day experience to historical antecedents. Greene’s use of blues songs on the soundtrack is also smart, creating a sense of historical continuity between the contemporary testimonies and archival footage.
The interviewees in Shinemen are no less eloquent or socially conscious than those in American Shoeshine; taken together the films provide a wonderful collection of firsthand sources. Singleton also fleshes out her firsthand testimonies with interviews with historians and cultural figures (among them actor and filmmaker Bill Duke, always a welcome presence in a movie), who describe the ways that shoe shining factors into urban society. Yet the historical reflections serve mainly to color the character study of Williams, who emerges as noble and down-to-earth. In between the interviews with secondhand sources, Williams describes how he built up his shoe-shining business from scratch and developed it into a formidable presence in Chicago. He also discusses his happy marriage and relationships with his grown children; shining shoes comes to seem like the cornerstone of a life well-lived.
Shinemen is a thoroughly upbeat experience, paying tribute to Williams’s humanism as well as his profession. In the film’s most moving passage, Williams talks about the man who inspired him to open a shoeshine shop in the first place. This man had given Williams a bad shine and provided bad customer service as well. Upon opening his shop, Williams hired the man in question, gave him training to improve his service, and ended up employing him for three decades. This rehabilitation speaks to how Williams viewed his operation as an investment in community. Moreover, the anecdote complements the considerations of upward mobility that factor so crucially in American Shoeshine. It comes as no surprise that Williams was such a vital force in Chicago’s tourism bureau—his affection for the city and the people who live in it is evident every time he appears onscreen. Singleton subtly argues that Williams nurtured his sense of goodwill in the person-to-person encounters that transpire during shoeshines—these good-natured interactions provide not only social opportunity, but opportunities to appreciate the people around you.