First All Black Film – Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Cabin in the Sky

Produced in 1943 at MGM by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincent Minnelli, “Cabin in the Sky” is the 1st all Black film produced by a major studio in Hollywood. “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and sung by the film’s star, Ethel Waters.

This musical take on Faust pits Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) against Luther Jr. (Lucifer’s baby boy). Enter temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Does Little Joe’s wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters) even stand a chance or will Joe be condemned to Hell?

 

 

“Cabin in the Sky” in featuring an all-African American cast was an unusual production for its time. In the 1940s, movie theaters in many cities, particularly in the southern United States, refused to show films with prominent black performers, so MGM took a considerable financial risk by approving the film. (Wikipedia)

Some remember “Cabin in the Sky” for its intelligent and witty script, which some claimed treated its characters and their race with a dignity rare in American films of the time. Others described Cabin in the Sky’s racial politics as the same “old stereotypes of Negro caricatures”.

Cabin in the Sky

Ethel Waters, Kenneth Spencer, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram

According to liner notes in the CD reissue of the film’s soundtrack, Freed and Minnelli sought input from black leaders before production began on the film.

When I first saw this film as a kid in the 60’s I was absolutely floored. This was during the civil rights era and I had no idea that in the 1940’s a major production company had taken on the issue of the lack of black representation in film. I understand the point about the stereotypical characterizations – Lena Horne, the aggressive, hypersexual black woman. Ethel Waters, the dutiful, prayerful housewife and “Rochester”, the buffoonish and no account lazy black man.

My feelings of the film are mixed because to some extent, it feeds into the political narrative that some black folks aren’t worthy of equality because they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it. But on the other hand, there was finally a film with all black faces, the most gifted entertainers of all-time – Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and their stories. These characters weren’t just sprinkled in, they were integral to the plot and couldn’t be cut out in racist southern theaters.

As a black woman, it both breaks my heart and angers me that we even needed to have this conversation, not only in the ’40’s but as an ongoing fight for all aspects of African-American representation on-screen.

 

 

After years of unavailability, Warner Home Video and Turner Entertainment released “Cabin in the Sky” on DVD on January 10, 2006. I recommend checking it out with this backstory in mind. These legendary artists deserved to have worldwide exposure the same as their white counterparts of the day.

 

We’ve come along way, but the truth is we still have a long way to go.

 

Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Busby Berkeley (“Shine” sequence, uncredited)
Produced by Arthur Freed
Albert Lewis
Written by Marc Connelly(uncredited)
Lynn Root (play)
Joseph Schrank
Based on Cabin in the Sky (play)
Starring Ethel Waters
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson
Lena Horne
Louis Armstrong
Music by Harold Arlen
Vernon Duke
George Bassman
Roger Edens
Cinematography Sidney Wagner
Editing by Harold F. Kress
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • April 9, 1943
Running time 98 minutes

 

 

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4 responses to “First All Black Film – Cabin in the Sky (1943)

  1. Actually, the First All Black Film was one I like even more than Cabin in the Sky: HALLELUJAH! (1929), directed by the great King Vidor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Here is the trailer:

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    • Thank you so much for correcting me and including the trailer. I’ll definitely do a post on Hallelujah and make the update. Cabin in the Sky was unusual for the time but not the first all black cast film. Keep me on my toes.😊

      Like

  2. Pingback: Before “Cabin in the Sky” – Early Black Films of the 1920’s | iheartfilm

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