In 1943, American men were off fighting, and women were off working. These experiences, by definition, changed their points of view. All but the dimmest individuals began to see a disconnect between the rhetoric of equality used to sell the war, and the racial realities of American life. Many, of course, were proponents of discrimination, and more were disinclined to think about the issues. Hollywood saw new markets. Southern states had long refused to show any sympathetic depiction of black life (even insisting that prints shown be purged of torch singer), and would still do so. Censors had applied the Hayes code more stringently to scenes featuring black characters, and would continue to. But studios felt that even watered-down and regionally boycotted, all-black pictures would likely make money. First, Warner Bros. released the all-black Cabin in the Sky, and quickly 20th Century Fox followed with Stormy Weather, a fictionalized biopic musical revue based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (sadly best remembered for dancing with Shirley Temple). The movies are filled with obvious and troubling stereotypes, but were a great leap forward in humanizing black characters. Both were released on DVD this February.
Viewed today, Cabin in the Sky is a relic and Stormy Weather a time capsule. Cabin in the Sky has an amazingly strong and composed, yet Mammy-ish female lead playing against a emasculated stereotype of a husband. The far greater depth her character is allowed marks how far black cinema had come, and where it still needed to go. Stormy Weather, though less ambitious vis a vis human emotion, and thus less controversial, is start to finish dizzying with genius. I kid you not: “Fats” Waller, Katharine Dunham Dancers, Ada White, Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, and the Nicholas Brothers (to name a few) tackle 20 musical numbers in 77 minutes. If you think you might not know who any of these people are, watch Stormy Weather simply to recognize that you do. If you are already a fan of these incredibly dressed superstars, watch Stormy Weather to see them work their assess off. Just watch it.
I don’t endorse Cabin in the Sky quite so enthusiastically, but it has its moments. Cabin in the Sky recasts the Faust legend in an anytown USA black community. The film stars Ethel Waters, the jazz vocalist credited for saving the world from lugubrious faux operatic songsters. She plays Petunia, a long-suffering woman of incomparable moral fiber, married to Joe, a weak-willed gambler and philanderer. She adores him, and the Lord, and when Joe dies, God gives him six months reprieve to save his soul, because Petunia asked so nicely. For the first half of the film Petunia nurses Joe to health by singing the forgettable “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” over and over. Waters pulls the treacle-y song off, but barely.
Eventually, Petunia’s love of Joe imperils her soul and gives her a chance to sing better songs. When she thinks she sees her husband consorting with the town tramp, Georgia (Lena Horne in her first major role) she loses her faith. Months after kicking him out, Petunia, now a vamp, runs into Joe and Georgia. The two women settle their differences with a sing-off. (Apparently, Waters also resented Horne off-screen, and would spout anti-Semitic tirades to bring the attention on the set back to her.) In the undisputed highlight of the film, the women take turns on progressively dirtier verses of the innuendo filled “Honey in the Honeycomb.” Petunia wins back Joe, the audience collectively goes “that was fucking great, but he’s not much of a prize” and the film comes to a tidy and absurd conclusion.
Though Waters bests Horne in Cabin in the Sky, Horne forever usurps Waters’ with her performance of “Stormy Weather” in the film of the same name. Having temporarily refused marriage to Robinson over her career, journeys back to domesticity with an epic performance of the song, which was long associated with Waters.
Defiantly earnest, Horne laments “since my man and I ain’t together / keeps raining all the time.” The scene (ostensibly part of a showcase night for army men) opens with Horne alone on a stage looking at a backdrop of a busy street. Slowly, she moves through outlandish ensemble dances, always shot and behaving as the distanced observer. By shooting her as in but not of the performance, the film manages take Horne her entire character arc from driven career woman to lonely though beautiful spinster in the seven or so minutes of the sequence. Its a deeply moving, socially conservative story. It would have been soothing for GI’s fearful of returning home to uppity women, and perhaps cautionary to uppity women. But the message is made subtle by the extended coda that follows. Reunited, Horne and Robinson watch the Nicholas Brothers perform the most joyous and technically proficient tap dance ever filmed. With Cab Calloway’s band, they make the couple’s happiness manifest. And though your happiness might spring from a different source, it would film similarly.
The romantic comedy has long supplanted the musical as Hollywood’s light-hearted, and often status quo reinforcing genre of choice. Proof of the strength of the current African-American film-watching market is the onslaught of romantic comedies featuring black heroines. Best of these is the Queen Latifah remake of Last Holiday. In the plot-weak film, Latifah is told erroneously she’s dying, and begins to live. She charms all of European high society in about a week as she spends what are to be her last days in a elite old world resort. Latifah carries the movie, which could have easily been unwatchable, and quickly becomes so whenever she isn’t on screen. Last Holiday parallels Pretty Woman. Both rely on the conceit of a fish out of water in an expensive hotel, both announced their leads as new contenders for the title of America’s Sweetheart. Latifah is a clearly a movie star and great beauty beginning to end and yet her character comes across consistently down-to earth. Her love interest, L.L. Cool J, commands the screen nearly as well, and only the most contrarian moviegoer isn’t rooting for their happy ending. With little tension, the film could easily be saccharine, but the leads are so charismatic that it works. They make you overlook the terrible story, writing and camerawork. Without them, other recent films have to work harder to win their audience.
Something New does its best, and ends up halfway decent. Kenya McQueen is a middle-class black career woman, successful in business, unlucky in love. Played by Sanaa Lathan who I will sheepishly admit I remember best as the lead in Alien Vs. Predator, Kenya is an unpleasant, if very bright, princess type. She hates dogs and spiders, and her beige house reflects her dulled spirit. A friend sets her up on a blind date with Brian, a white landscape architect. Apparently the matchmaker sees something the audience doesn’t because Brian instantly decides she is ground worth cultivating. His job as gardener does more than provide dirty innuendo to the film, it defines the central metaphor. He plants seeds in her and she blossoms, as it were.
The metaphor, which also animated last years Just Like Heaven, is yucky and anachronistic. Men take career women on as projects emotionally and sexually, and fulfill their barren lives. I find heroine’s who deserves love from the start healthier and more intriguing. Still, Something New is halfway decent, and the decent half starts once Kenya opens up to love and becomes an sympathetic protagonist.
Something New addresses convincingly how black communities resent and strain interracial relationships, and how white America makes them defensive enough to feel the need to do so. Kenya faces daily the overwhelming pressure of the “black tax.” As a black professional she is under more scrutiny and has to work doubly hard to get half as far. The reaction shots of Kenya’s face after a client asks her white, male secretary to double-check her accounting, are poignant.
Her affair with Brian offers escape from this pressure, and the love scenes, well-shot and unexpected, are respite. But, Kenya resents that Brian isn‘t faced with her struggle, and she can’t recognize how hard he tries to make sense of her world. When, looking for insight, Brian enters an ongoing conversation with her friends by asking “are you guys talking about the black tax?” they treat him like a NARC at a Phish concert. The film plays moments like this quietly, and well. The director and screenwriter, both relatively young African-American women, present a consistently fresh perspective. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts and the point remains unclear. By way of dénouement, Kenya’s father pronounces “the boy’s just white, he’s not a Martian.” But would that be better or worse?
For all its problems, Something New is a rare example of mainstream movie that’s often touching, sophisticated and economical. It’s a shame the film is overshadowed by and lumped in with Madea’s Family Reunion. But it is doomed to be. In both films, Blair Underwood is cast as the superficially perfect single black male. In Something New, his shortcoming is that he’s not Brian, but in Madea’s Family Reunion, he’s a physically abusive monster (Carlos).
Madea is the sequel to last year’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which introduced Madea, a sass-talking, gun-toting matriarch played in drag by writer/director Tyler Perry. Diary was an argument for traditional Christian values, juxtaposed with a man in bad drag hitting people, while people make fart jokes and fat jokes. Tyler Perry has built an empire on this mean-spirited moralizing. Madea’s Family Reunion is the first in Perry’s new seven-picture deal.
Madea is less a character than a plot device connecting meandering and impossibly unbelievable vignettes about her extended family, as their search for love and peace. You see, Madea has just taken on an unruly foster daughter who responds only to being swatted about the head; Madea’s niece Lisa is being pressured to marry Carlos, despite the fact that he beats her daily; and her other niece Nima keeps rejecting her perfect Christian suitor. Eventually, of course, Nima submits, and Lisa hits Carlos over the head with a skillet. Nima, then, puts on Lisa’s unused wedding dress and lives happily ever after. It’s as heavy-handed, and hard to sit through as it sounds. And its disturbing.
The film is sunk by an irreconcilable conflict between the messages preached and lives shown. Though it is bad for Carlos to hit his fiancé, for some reason its laudable and laughable for Madea to hit just about anyone, especially children. When she catches her foster daughter skipping school, Madea whips her with a belt, while Madea’s cantankerous brother watches the episode of Good Times in which Janet Jackson gets abused by her mother. Madea’s brother screams out to no one in particular about how cruelly Janet Jackson is being treated, and this is intended to make watching a very large man in a dress brutalize a child even funnier. The implication is that if there were any real similarity between what Madea is doing and what was shown on the TV, Perry wouldn’t dare invite the comparison. Still, as far as I can see, it’s exactly the same.
Perry is often exalted as a sign of progress in black cinema, since he has vast creative control, is tremendously popular, and uses the word dignity a lot. Oprah interviewed him in Madea drag, and Maya Angelou speechifies about empowerment throughout the last third of Madea’s Family Reunion. But speeches do not make child abuse and fat jokes progressive or dignified. More dignified is the successful and complicated heroine of Something New and far more progressive is the chance for Queen Latifah to be the next great American movie star.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.