The dark truth of cinema, the truest American art form outside of television, is that it was founded as entertainment for the white norm. Whiteness is seen as a given and a status quo of early cinema, while any other race, especially black, is seen as useful only as entertainment. There was a need (and there remains a need) for an antecedent to a starkly monocultural screen, which was for a time filled by a brave few independent filmmakers. Their films, a hodgepodge of melodramas, genre pictures, and the unclassifiable, were at the time characterized as a single genre- “race films”.
~ Race Films Spotlight: Prehistory, Oscar Micheaux, and Body and Soul (1925) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1920s Oddballs ~ Race Films Spotlight: Hallelujah (1929) ~ Race Films Spotlight: Paul Robeson and Emperor Jones (1933) ~ Race Films Spotlight: 1943’s Black Musicals
1943 proved to be one of the most important years for studio-produced race films, with the brief appearance of the all-black musical as a commercially viable genre. By that time, the smash success of the black Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky all but demanded adaptation. Miraculously, the play’s witty book actually treats its characters with dignity. (Producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli, presaging many an apology to Al Sharpton, even consulted black leaders to ensure the movie was respectful.) The premise, oddly enough, is essentially the same of The Blood of Jesus- a carouser (played by Eddie Rochester) is shot in a night gambling and destined for Hell, but is given a second chance by the prayers of his devout wife (Ethel Waters). Characters that might resemble stereotypes in lesser films are complicated- Rochester’s scurrilous Little Joe, for one, is
adorable (discovered by his wife with a bullet in his stomach, he says, before keeling over: “I got in a little trouble again, honey.”); Water’s Petunia initially seems like a saint, but can beat dice-shooters at their own games and strut like any pool hall girl. Even better, moralism is kept to a minimum, the battle between good and evil treated like a bureaucratic competition between the angelic General, and Satan’s put-upon son, Lucifer Jr. And, of course, the performances are uniformly magnificent- Waters is titanic, and makes the biggest impression, but Rochester, finally out of the valet suit, ably demonstrates his talents, as do Lena Horne as Rochester’s midriff-revealing temptress, and John W. Bubbles as Rochester’s charming assaulter, moving like Astaire in his astonishing “Shine” number.
When Cabin proved a success, it bred competition; within two months of the former’s release, another all-black Hollywood musical was produced, under the pretense of a loose, self-starring biopic of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous tap dancer and Shirley Temple co-star. A more traditional movie musical, Stormy Weather followed the Singin’ in the Rain system of appropriating standards for soundtrack and going light on story, but to a more vehement degree. Its ostensible plot- a romance between then 65 year-old Robinson and 27 year-old Lena Horne as their careers advance- barely moves beyond its conception, while the curt 77 minute runtime is packed to the gills with twenty numbers. Weather is a glorified revue with an upward rise arc as its breath, basically, but a glorious one, featuring just about every notable name of Harlem cabaret at the time performing at or near their peak. The most astonishing run of musical numbers starts when Ada Brown and Fats Waller perform “That Ain’t Right”, and is sustained all the way to a finale (widely regarded as a masterpiece of dancing virtuosity) in which the Nicholas Brothers leapfrog into splits on a flight of stairs. It’s all unimpeachable, but tinged with the melancholy of knowing that these performers would never receive such a spotlight again. Fats, in his only major film appearance, would be dead in a year; Horne would never have another starring role, and eventually found herself blacklisted; Robinson, Brown and dancer Katherine Dunham would never appear on film again. Only Cab Calloway, who starred in a few concert films, and the Nicholas Brothers, who continued to make sporadic appearances in surgically removable film numbers, would continue with limited screen careers. It and Cabin are the briefest of spotlights on an entire era.
Minor black musicals would appear sporadically for the rest of the forties, mostly through revues and independent films, but neither MGM nor 20th Century Fox attempted to restage the risky hits of 1943. Only the 1950s would see a brief revitalization of the black musical under the direction of noted Hayes Code defier Otto Preminger. Check back next time for a spotlight on Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1953), which pushed its star Dorothy Dandridge towards the first Academy Award nomination for a black actor in a lead role.