Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire: The Political Exigencies that Fuelled Stormy Weather and Carmen Jones

Dr. Ruth Elizabeth Burks
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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
Stream: Representations: Media, Communications, Arts, Literature
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

Dr. Ruth Elizabeth Burks

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Bentley College

Dr Ruth Elizabeth Burks is an assistant professor of English at Bentley College and a W. E. B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. Dr Burks' areas of specialization include African American literature and film, cultural studies, disability studies, and women's studies. Prior to being the first African American woman to earn her doctorate in English from UCLA in 1993, Dr Burks received her MA in English and BA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors in the major. Dr Burks also earned a certificate of completion from the American Film Institute, where she was a screenwriting fellow, and, more recently, an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she concentrated in administration, planning, and social policy. She is currently at work on two manuscripts: The first, tentatively entitled "The Ghost in the Machine," analyzes the representation of African American women in Hollywood cinema; the second, tentatively entitled "The Portrait of an Autistic as a Young Man" provides an extended qualitative interview aimed at illuminating what it is actually like to be autistic.

Ref: D05P0234