On Stormy Weather: Old Hollywood's Black A-lister spectacle
If you don’t already know by now, Andrew L. Stone's Stormy Weather is truly brilliant. With an all-Black Hollywood cast and musical numbers that were impressive both with their grip on your emotions and in their old Hollywood style, it’s not hard to understand why the film is a classic.
Before watching, I had never seen an all-Black cast in a film made so long ago. I think I may have assumed that none were made. I had imagined that production companies would be reluctant to put money into creating films for Black people to watch. But we’ll come back to that. The film was the second of its kind to be released in 1943 with an all African-American cast. Throughout Stormy Weather, I couldn’t help but think about how incredible it must have felt for aspiring Black actors to see Black people occupying every inch of the screen, talking about the enchantment of love and the long voyage of chasing success in the entertainment industry. I wondered how brief of a distraction this narrative was from the reality of the lives of ordinary Black people watching. We can all relate to leaving the cinema feeling like a completely different person: I wonder what post-film transformation felt like for them.
It would be unjust not to touch on Lena Horne’s elegant and emotionally loaded performance in the film. It is the heartbeat throughout, locking you in from the moment she appears. She was known to be part of an era that was steeped in class and sex appeal, and her voice is said to be the embodiment of the history of jazz and blues. She is said to have paved the way for Black actors that came after her, yet the hardship that she faced in a white male-dominated industry took a demanding toll on her and also caused many lows in her career. This is a common thing to hear when we talk about Black women during this era in the entertainment industry. Having to "pave the way" for others came with a lot of compromise and responsibility.
I get the impression that old Hollywood was completely in love with itself, especially when you consider how many films during this era (1910-1960) had plots based around performers or even the entire industry itself. This probably had a lot to do with The Great Depression and filmmakers knowing that glamour and showbiz drama would make a lot of money because people wanted to invest in a reality that wasn't their own. However, it’s interesting to think about how a Black woman fits inside of western ideas of glamour.
Lena is often described as a really beautiful and sexy woman. I think it’s no coincidence, though, that she is a fairer skinned Black woman and, because of this, was used as an industry pawn to ‘break the colour line’ and push more Black actors into lead roles. They used Lena’s face as a ‘hey guys, it won’t be so bad if they look like her’, but of course ‘they’ didn’t all look like her and still don’t all look like her. It’s safe to assume that a darker-skinned woman would have never been able to fill a lead role, even in an all-Black cast.
This brings me back to the question that I grappled with for quite some time after the film had ended. Who exactly was this film made for? I wanted to assume that it was made specifically for Black audiences, but I also found that there were layers to this. With several musical numbers that ranged from orchestral ensembles to solo singers and experimental dancers, it was easy to overlook certain theatrics within the performances, and what nuances they provided when thinking about the historical context of the film. It wasn’t until a scene where Black ensemble dancers appeared wearing sunflower hats with golliwogs on them that I really started to question who this film was aimed at.
The actors seemed happy to be wearing the costumes but they were hardly in a position to express their discomfort about it, and isn’t navigating white supremacy in the real world a huge performance for Black people anyway? It was interesting to see how the subtle minstrelsy could have been there so as not to cause conflict or seem ungrateful for taking up space. I also feel inclined to say that in 1943, being a Black performer that booked gigs probably felt like such an achievement that perhaps they weren’t thinking about the harms of stereotyping or racist caricature. They were getting their break.
I think that the importance of Black people in film boils down to the significance of the documentation of our lives and our experiences. When there is a system being upheld that constantly works to diminish and erase Blackness, preserving and cherishing our own stories becomes vital and one of the best forms of retaliation. It becomes important that we know how Black people felt in the ’40s, how they dressed and how they sang, and despite me not knowing who exactly the film was aimed at, it spoke to Black life. The Black experience is vast, we are not a monolith, and we experience life in different ways. The sharing of our lives, through film, often serves as a silent promise to continue and to keep passing on, to know that even as the work we create now may still be in development, we are the forebears of this part of history and we have a Black ordained responsibility to document it.
The BFI is currently showcasing a series of films that take a look at the artistry of Black women performers in the entertainment industry. The films explore how they revolutionise and nourish the world around them. It never surprises me how much Black women leave legacies of enrichment and positive change and I often wish that it wasn’t always up to us to devote our lives so selflessly, but I am also filled with gratitude for it. If you are interested in revelling in other Black women’s work, definitely check out the BFI’s Her Voice series.
Here are some of our favourite numbers from the film itself:
The iconic performance from Cab Calloway and The Nicholas Brothers - a must watch!
Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin'
A lively scene by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson - (who was in his 60s here!)
All images from The British Film Institute
Her Voice: Black Women From the Spotlight to the Screen is at BFI Southbank from 17 May – 30 June. Tickets on sale now at bfi.org.uk/whatson