It hardly bears saying that Hollywood has historically had a problem with diverse representation on the silver screen, especially with regard to Black artists. The recent push for better media representation, while pressing, is not new. From the inception of the American film industry, white filmmakers have had advantages over filmmakers of color, in front of and behind the screen. Countless times works by white filmmakers have actively contributed to the marginalization of minorities. Most infamously, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) both fueled and validated violent anti-Black sentiment—a disturbing idea, given how influential cinema is on culture. American film musicals, despite their reputation as wholesome and/or romantic in the cultural imagination, have an unfortunate tendency to feature minstrelsy and blackface, which film musicals retained as the genre evolved from the stage tradition. In fact, not only was The Jazz Singer (1929) the first talkie, it was also the birth of the American film musical. In the following decades, classical Hollywood film musicals both perpetuated anti-Black attitudes via blackface and minstrelsy as well as minimized Black performers’ ability to contribute to cinema as an art form.
Stormy Weather is a 1943 film musical by (white) director Andrew L. Stone and released by 20th Century Fox. The film was—and still is—known for its all-Black ensemble cast, a rarity during Hollywood’s classical era. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson plays protagonist Bill Williamson in a story loosely based on Robinson’s own life. After serving in World War I, Williamson returns home and pursues a career as a performer. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). Williamson runs into obstacles in both love and employment, but his perseverance ultimately wins him both a career and Selina’s heart. Musical performances from well-known Black performers at the time, many of whom play themselves, are interspersed throughout. From a certain perspective, Stormy Weather is a showcase of popular Black artists of the early 1940s. However simplistic the film’s plot may seem, though, Stormy Weather’s very existence brings up some complex social issues that remain relevant today.
Including but not limited to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers, the all-star ensemble of Stormy Weather would probably be hailed as prime examples of Black excellence, today. And therein lies part of the problem. It is undeniable that all the performers in the film are considered, then and now, masters of their respective crafts; however, it does raise the question of how such a wealth of talent warranted so little attention in Hollywood. There are a plethora of films starring white classical Hollywood actors, both those now hailed as icons and those lesser known (or even forgotten), but it took a veritable host of famously well-known and capable Black performers to warrant Stormy Weather and a handful of other mainstream films with all-Black ensemble casts. Otherwise, when Black characters appeared in films with majority-white casts, they were relegated to extremely minor roles, often as a servant—or, in the case of a musical, a supporting role in a short number (see: the Nicholas Brothers with Gene Kelly in 1948’s The Pirate). This minimization of Black onscreen presences is an indication that Hollywood placed more value on aspects of Black culture that fulfilled a certain value of “entertaining,” rather than authenticity.
However, criticism of Stormy Weather does raise a question: is it fair to focus on the film’s negative aspects when it was one of the few classical Hollywood films to place Black performers front and center? Indeed, this isn’t something to take lightly. Even now, the number of Black-led mainstream films is outnumbered by films with white-led or white-majority casts. With our modern-day perspective of the restrictive racial relations of the early 20th century, an all-Black ensemble film that showcased the talents of popular Black entertainers sounds remarkable. By no means do I dismiss the impact Stormy Weather had. However, praising the film uncritically leads us into the dangerous territory of accepting whatever representation audiences are fed, whether good or poor. Everything about this situation is complicated. There are no easy answers. How do we grapple with the pseudo-African fantasy aesthetic in several of Stormy Weather’s musical numbers? Then, how does that change once we have context of entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker using that same motif in the performances that made her famous? Do we read into the fact that most of mainstream Hollywood’s Black ensemble films were lighthearted musicals rather than more serious dramas?
All of this to say, representations of Black characters—especially by white filmmakers—has fallen short of decent for far too long. And that isn’t even to mention the lack of Black creatives behind the scenes. In recent years, this was evidenced by increased attention to people of color in film and television and such public discussions as #OscarsSoWhite, conversations made possible and more potent with social media. Whether we are consumers or creators of media, we must be more conscientious about Black representation in front of and behind the camera, going forward. I’m not necessarily saying that activism should play a role in everything we choose to watch, but perhaps now is the time to actively and critically think about whose stories are and aren’t being told, who does and doesn’t get to tell them, and why. Movies are much more than simply entertainment; film, as all art, communicates our worldviews, our values—whether or not the filmmakers intend to do so or not. Virtually since its inception, Hollywood’s film industry has minimized the value of Black art and, consequently, Black culture and lives. Now, the least we can do is acquaint ourselves with Black stories.