Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire: The Political Exigencies that Fuelled Stormy Weather and Carmen Jones
In the 1940s and 50s, Hollywood produced two all black musical extravaganzas featuring talented African American women: Lena Horne co-starred with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in Stormy Weather (1943), and Dorothy Dandridge stole the limelight from Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones (1954). Stormy Weather offered a corrective to the concern expressed in the Office of War Information's manual that portraying blacks negatively undermined the war effort. Carmen Jones provided fodder for Eisenhower's remarks that Earl Warren's appointment was "the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made," after the Supreme Court rendered the unanimous decision that Warren, as Chief Justice, helped to secure in Brown v. Board of Education. Although little more than a decade separate Stormy Weather and Carmen Jones, over that span of fourteen years, American culture changed significantly — a transformation that explains the enormous discrepancies between Hollywood's portrayal in 1943 and 1954 of two black women in two generically identical movies. FDR died, and Truman assumed the presidency. When WW II ended, the Cold War began in earnest. Truman desegregated the Armed Services in 1948, and Democrats — after more than twenty years in power — ceased to retain the highest office in the land with Eisenhower's election in 1952. Equally important, Hollywood became a target of the Red Scare. So even while the nation's highest court moved to dismantle segregation as a way of life in the United States, a chastened and fearful Hollywood adopted a far more conservative stance. Carmen Jones, peopled with highly sexually charged and emotionally unstable blacks, caused the most liberal white viewers to question the efficacy of having African Americans attend school with their own children; only a protracted Civil Rights Movement could mitigate the damage done and pave the way for full implementation of Brown v. Board of Education with "all deliberate speed."
Keywords: African Americans, Hollywood Cinema, Blacks in the Military, Representation, Media
Dr. Ruth Elizabeth Burks
Assistant Professor, Department of English, Bentley College