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R. Fahan

Negro Life à la Hollywood

(August 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 33, 16 August 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After years of having produced movies in which Negroes were portrayed either as Stepin Fetchit clowns or as dear old Mammies, Hollywood has made a “concession” to the Negro people by producing two all-Negro pictures, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.

These pictures should, by all means, be seen. There is a tremendous store of talent in them. It is thrilling, at least for me, to listen to Ethel Waters’ singing and quite as thrilling both to look at and listen to Lena Horne; Bill Robinson tap dances as no one else can; Katherine Dunham has a grace and agility which are remarkable; in a word, both pictures are rich stores of entertainment.

Yet truth requires that we speak in harsh terms of both films, for they carry on in the same old vile Jim Crow tradition which has characterized almost all of Hollywood’s treatment of the Negro. First of all, they are all-Negro in cast. But it is clear that any serious portrait of Negro life; even any portrait of Negro entertainment, even any portrait of the Negro idyll (whatever that may be) as Cabin in the Sky attempts, must necessarily include the whites.

The Negro in America contacts the whites everywhere, like it or not; the segregation of Jim Crowism is merely a FORM of contact. And to make an all-Negro film is merely to carry that form over into the movies.

But not only do these films continue the Jim Crow tradition; they are dishonest even within that limitation. Never is a Negro shown as a serious human being capable of the same emotions as anyone else.

Cabin in the Sky perpetrates the old myths – in that assumed “good-natured” way – about the Negro: the crap shooter, the razor wielder, the washwoman, the jitterbug. Do Negroes live and suffer, laugh and weep, love and hate as genuine human beings capable of depth in their emotional expression? Not according to Hollywood. The best that Hollywood can say for the Negro is that ... well, “some of them aren’t such bad devils after all (if they keep their place!).”

Stormy Weather doesn’t quite insult the intelligence in the way that Cabin in the Sky does. Its plot is so thin that it is merely a series of vaudeville acts; but even here, does anyone in his senses believe that the career of Bill Robinson can be adequately portrayed in terms of an all-Negro cast?

One wonders why such talented Negro actors consented to these Uncle Tom pictures. In a sense it is very irritating that they have done so. By the charm and grace of their performance they have made these pictures so attractive and enjoyable that their very talent serves to obscure the basic reprehensible characteristics of the film.

There are great dramas, and comedies too, to be made with the Negro as the theme. But they will have to be honest and human. They will have to escape from the Jim Crow straightjacket. And they will require Negro actors with a sufficient sense of dignity and integrity to insist on such a portrayal of the essential tragedy which Negro life in American is today.

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