9.05.2013

Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Rainin' all the time"


Stormy Weather (dir. Andrew J. Stone, 1943) stirs up uncomfortable affects.  It inspires wonderment, awe, and other forms of pleasure alongside embarrassment, shame, discomfort, and sadness.  Much of its affective resonance is related to its status as a product of classical Hollywood, marketed by and in part aimed at whites, but made up entirely of black performers.  The result is a double-voiced film in which talented black singers, dancers, and actors are granted a stage on which to “do their things”—things, it should be noted, that they do with consistent virtuosity—but must risk doing so in frequently humiliating ways.  Examples include Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing a tap routine while dressed as an African savage (see below), or a chorus of singers and dancers cake-walking to “Georgia Camp Meeting,” the women sporting headdresses adorned with the grinning faces of pickaninny sunflowers (see above).  The film also features performances by such legends as Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers, who end the film with an astonishing tap routine.  The brilliance of the performances—the pure exhilaration invoked by the Nicholas Brothers number, for instance—continually rubs up against the discomfort we feel at the racist trappings of the film in a larger sense: its insistence on framing black performance as a “natural” outpouring of black emotion, and the way in which its use of stereotypes caters to the desires of those white audience members eager to see black performers smile, laugh, gambol, shuck, and jive.  Watching Stormy Weather, I felt myself continually pulled in opposite directions, moved by the ingenuity of the performers, repulsed by the ways in which that ingenuity had been mounted, saddened and compelled by the need and ability of black performance to shine through the distorting lens of dominant culture.

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