By Abdullah "T Kid" Saeed
By Matt Caputo
By Devon Maloney
By Chris Chafin
By Village Voice
By Katie Moulton
By Hilary Hughes
By Gili Malinsky
The sequence builds to a climactic crane shot: Encircled by the shadows of the chorus, Americans on the march, she is a tiny but enthralling vortex of energy, her race and gender barely discernible till the camera swoops down again, closing in on her grotesquely painted face. Distressing as the sequence is, Judy's spirit gets past it. She does not seem to be playing to the blackface, as Jolson does in similar numbers; what stays in the memory is her vocal clarity (the crane shot climbs over a single bell-toned long note), not the horrific racist cartoon. It's the ultimate indication of her power to transcend: There's very little uglier than this in American pop culture, yet even here Judy can find a reserve of dignity, and not be brought down. She does not "sell" racism; at her bosses' behest, she merely wears its costumes.
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In fact, she doesn't sell anything. It's impossible to imagine her doing a commercial or endorsing a product. She sings. When necessary, between songs, she speaks dialogue, chats with the audience, or introduces another artist. That's it. Such independence, astonishing in a child force-fed through the corporate system as she was, is another proof of her iconic status. How many American artists in any field have attained that degree of freedom? The greatest thing to be said about her is that she deserves it. No wonder they obsess over her, enshrine her, mimic her. The desire to capture such an elusive spirit is natural. But her simplicity keeps a discreet distance. Tied down and overworked, broken-down and dead before she was 50, on disc she is still alive and free, as unclassifiable and democratically accessible as America itself.