This film may have been the first “major” Hollywood film to feature an entirely African American cast. By major, I think we mean “prestige” – made by a major studio and featuring actual, prominent performers. If that’s true – and my source for that is an encyclopedia other than Wikipedia – then this is a landmark just by existing. It probably should be celebrated for that. But this is not a good movie.
Spoilers, I guess.
Before I get to the film itself, apparently the film was banned in certain US cities and in other US cities screenings were cancelled, all because of the nature of the cast. This was in the 1940s, when the US was supposedly fighting to preserve the free world. What does this say about the United States of America in 1943?
So, the film. As you might expect, a film based upon a musical about black Americans written by white Americans comes off as a little racist. Not overtly racist (to me anyway) but more subtly racist in the sense that the cast appear to be playing into white stereotypes of African Americans than they are playing actual characters (though that’s not entirely true of everyone, especially Waters). As someone else noted, there are lots of excessively large grins, and there is dice, for example. Also, the music (the score) feels pretty white to me, given what was going on in African American music at the time. (And the jazz that exists is associated with sin, as Louis Armstrong is a minion of Satan – literally – and Duke Ellington is playing at some morally questionable club.)
I am a white guy and am fortunate enough to have never had to deal with systematic racism. So I think it’s understandable that, if you’re not white, it’s likely the inauthentic portrayals of black people that might bother you. But for me, what really bothers me is the childish attitude of the film towards religion and morality (and the sexism that comes with it).
This movie’s view of morality is literally childish. Now, there’s likely something racist in it, given that it’s likely that this was the view of religion that was deemed acceptable to black people, and that anything more sophisticated than this would have been too much for the audiences. But having seen similar portrayals of religion in other Hollywood films, I suspect that this is just the popularized version of religion that studios thought audiences could handle. It’s unbelievably simplistic and condescending.
You see, there are devils and there are soldiers in the army of god (angles, I guess). And they fight over your soul. Moral behaviour consists of listening to the soldiers, having no “vices” (such as dancing, jazz, gambling, being attracted to pretty women), and working hard and not being lazy. Immoral behaviour consists of resting when you could work, enjoying jazz, having money, making people happy and finding Lena Horne attractive. (Why Lena Horne’s character is interested in Joe before he wins the lottery is never explained and is just a sexist trope that there are fallen women out there who will do whatever they can to destroy perfectly good, much older, men. Sigh.)
The devils literally have an office in hell (it’s air-conditioned) where they cook up ways of corrupting souls. There may be no white people in hell, from the point of view of this movie. The soldiers of god literally wear uniforms. The might not be any white people in heaven either, which suggests heaven and hell are segregated.
Did you know that you go to hell if you have sex, or even just enjoy yourself by dancing and drinking? Conversely, it seems, you will go to heaven if you fight a man who is making a semi welcome pass at your wife. Acts of god are real and can be summoned by prayer to save your husband’s soul.
So this is a delightful little film. Sure, you might enjoy some of the songs. But this film exists in a world so unsophisticated that it is childish. The writers don’t understand people or they don’t think their audience does. And they certainly wouldn’t want to intrude into our escapist fantasies with anything resembling the real world.
I can’t believe the kind of crap people are sometimes subjected to.