Mining conflicted stereotypes (alternately positive and negative and typically all of the above) of African-American culture wherein performance is nothing less than a fact of life and a principle of pure being, Stormy Weather reflects both WWII Hollywood’s sudden-onset awareness of black audiences and its indomitable drive to comb every inch of the American identity for souls to claim at the box office. Of course, this “sudden-onset awareness” was hardly circumstantial: with a significant portion of the movie-going audience abroad and embroiled in conflict (not that there wasn’t conflict on the homefront…) Hollywood suddenly discovered a reason to spread out its extremities in search of someone new to market to.
And someone old to market to, it turns out, since black theatricality wasn’t exactly a fear-object for white audiences, who had flocked to racialized depictions of black physical externalization for over a century in concert halls while children and adults alike whispered, in fear and awe, mysteries of in-the-woods-behind-the-plantation slave communal dances. Hollywood wasn’t exactly about to not mine a historical linkage to burlesque and stage performance for its own purposes. And thus was born musicals like Stormy Weather, distinctly of the Busby Berkeley backstage “putting on a show” tradition, although with noticeably darker faces and less outré glamour this time around.
Now, back to that “positive and negative” dialectic: it’s doubtful that African-American performance can ever be disentangled from racialized systems that value black flexibility and physical negotiation at the expense of perceptions of black intellect, funneling African-Americans into channels where their wealth is contingent on their willingness to “play” for predominantly white audiences. At the same time, performance/dance/routine and black culture are hardly newly related, with roots dating back to African animism and slave rituals in the American South where physical expressiveness was often not only a fount for unleashing pent up rage but for rejecting the ideological hegemony of black physical subservience and docility. By moving when they wanted to, rather than when whites told them to, slaves challenged the intellectual as well as the physical tenants of capitalist slavery, which held that their bodies were valuated only as money-making object, as machine, rather than as a wellspring of performative freedom.
That said, films like Stormy Weather are more tempestuous as far as analysis goes, and, frankly, the streams of valuing black performance and chagrining the culture that essentializes black performance will always be crossed. Being that I’m just a humble blogger, I’ll not so valiantly side-step that attempt to map out the mishap of racist appropriations of black dance culture and simply focus on Stormy Weather itself, which isn’t merely a a platonic depiction of the Hollywood machine circa 1943 but a veritable cornucopia of tensions related to black life and the valorization of black physicality, nobility, and assimilation.
Thankfully, the film puts its money where its mouth is and keeps the focus where it belongs: on the stage, and behind it. Focusing on Bill Robinson (playing loose-approximation Bill Williamson) and his love Lena Horne (playing fictitious burlesque singer Selina Rogers) and their attempts to marry a more domesticated life with their eternal love for the stage, Stormy Weather knows that this central twosome’s got and, well, it sure flaunts it. Cab Calloway also joins in, playing … well, the typically osmosis-stricken and porous boundary between reality and performance warps into a full-on wanton traffic jam with men as flamboyantly performative in real life as Calloway.
And the three of them together are very much the heart and soul of a film with more than its fair share of glowing incandescence in the mise-en-scene department. Horne’s “Stormy Weather” number in particular marshals some particularly mystifying camera gestures and imaginative foreground-background flourishes to accentuate Horne’s profoundly melancholic, even doleful vocal performance and longing eyes, again bleeding external, temporal role-playing and the more unclassifiable realm of the internal. But brighter moments abound. Running a trim 78 minutes, Stormy Weather’s finale – seemingly a fifth of the film – is also its star-shining standout, especially when the inimitable Calloway and Robinson move beyond the conventional limits of dance as an institution and construct and imagine something more side-splitting and death-defying all in one.
Of course, the film’s ideology is also plenty fraught and tempted by both conservatism and inclusivity (as almost every middle-of-the-road box office hunt in the American lore is, owing to the film’s desire to please all). We know from the beginning that the immaculate escapades of the middle will be absolved in the end; the framing device is a now-domesticated black culture living the American Dream as a successful Hollywood performer in a hoity house, no longer forced to hit the pavement of the American road that Horne’s character adores so much in her travelling burlesque troupe. The film interrogates, however ephemerally, the transience vs. domesticity dialectic, intimating how the American identity, doubly for blacks, was always more at home on the road than in any stable environment . That is, until the ‘40s, the suburbs, and the Dream got in the way and the exotic Horne, whose transient ways might threaten the American assumption that all transient travelling through public land is only ever a stop-gap until you find a private space to claim for your own, gives up uncertainty to achieve Americana. The film teases the glee of performance only to contain it at the end, professing that we need to be taught that what we really want is a man by our side, and a home to tend.
An implicit moral, less overtly expressing a social conscious than marshalling the disconcerted perceptions and sensations of the time? Wrapped in a homey, rather dashing package of fun and fancy freedom from the turmoil of life (even when the films are dragging you back in, absolving your worries)? What could be more American in the cinema than that? I guess, after a fashion, African-Americans had made it after all; they too could be tools not only for building (in slavery) the constructed American Dream, but visualizing (rather effectively, at that) its fruits in cinema as well.