To watch Golden Age Hollywood films is to unconsciously assimilate the notion of whiteness as the default. So white are the majority of these films’ casts that the appearance of any black person, be it a tertiary role or a silent extra, comes almost as a shock, a brief reminder of an entire segment of the American population’s existence – and of their general absence in their own country’s audiovisual stories.
Arguably worse still is the stereotypical, subservient nature of most parts black performers did get in mainstream Hollywood features. For all intents and purposes, those were still written, directed and produced by white men in a legally segregated era. As such, screen depictions of black people dating from that period naturally invite caution within the progressive-minded viewer: How accurate can they be? How efficiently can their performers mine them for genuine human truth that rises above the limits imposed by racist writing?
Films like Cabin In The Sky, a 1943 adaptation of the 1940 musical of the same name with an all-black cast, are most illustrative of that problem. Its simple, cartoonish characterization of issues frequently associated with the black working class (gambling, organized crime and sexual promiscuity vs. monogamy and religious piety) causes discomfort, as does Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s bumbling performance as Little Joe Jackson, a simple-minded illiterate sinner struggling to stay on the righteous path after a long period of gambling and infidelity. There is hardly a single Post-Reconstruction Southern Black Stereotype box that is not ticked. It’s difficult not to see the story’s vision of Christianity as a means to keep poor Black people content with their life, rather than a sustaining force of spiritual sustenance and resilience in the face of systemic oppression.
And yet, director Vincente Minnelli’s efforts to stay true to the African-American spiritual traditions that inspired the play’s original (white) creators are palpable throughout the film: An early gospel number in the church starts with the camera slowly panning left to right from a children’s choir to the adults next to them, then upwards as the song builds up in intensity, following the spread of an (unheard) rumour from person to person, pausing for each solo number, until it reaches Little Joe’s wife Petunia (Ethel Waters) on the backrow. After a wide shot of the congregation singing the chorus, we cut to a close-up of the radiant Waters repeating it one last time with almost tearful fervor. In only three shots, Minnelli has succinctly conveyed the kind of ecstatic communion non-churchgoers such as me can never truly understand.
As Petunia, Ethel Waters is one of the pillars of the film’s success. Just as she would do nine years later as Berenice Sadie Brown in Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of The Member Of The Wedding, she transcends racial stereotypes with what can only be described as pure, unaffected soul, built by a lifetime of love, hardship and endurance. When Petunia convinces God to give Joe another chance after his backsliding leads to a near-fatal encounter with a local small-time gangster, you have no trouble believing her prayer was “the most powerful piece of praying [they] heard up there in a long time”. The unfalsifiable heart she bestows upon Petunia expertly counters – and corrects – Rochester’s stereotyped antics, and brings much-needed depth to the story.
The film’s premise and narration are so strikingly similar to Jack Chick’s fundamentalist tracts – particularly the patronizing “adapted for black audiences” ones – that I’m almost positive it helped inspire them: Stereotypical characters, one man’s soul becoming the object of a high-stakes competition between angels and pantomime demons, a happy ending in which the sinner gets saved, presumably never to be tempted by evil again…
However, there are many artistic and narrative decisions that, while perhaps not entirely subversive, make Cabin In The Sky slightly more complex than your average Chick tract. For one thing, the border between the righteous and the sinners isn’t as fixed or solid as it initially seems: The demons’ plan to corrupt Joe with an unexpected lottery win and the seductive powers of his old flame Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) initially backfire when Joe overcomes Georgia’s advances and decides to use the money to buy Petunia all the things she wanted but couldn’t afford. Evil only gains its advantage back when Petunia catches the two together at just that moment, draws the wrong conclusion and kicks Joe out before giving him time to explain himself. By the film’s climax, Petunia has reduced herself to provoking her husband by crashing his party, trading barbs with his mistress and fraternizing with the man who tried to kill him, all to get him back. And after the ensuing fight kills them both, Petunia is still granted a place in heaven due to her prayer for divine intervention (in the form of tornado stock-footage borrowed from The Wizard Of Oz), whereas Joe gets off on a technicality when Georgia converts to Christianity off-screen and donates all the money he gave her to the church!
Such a scenario would be unthinkable in a Chick tract, or indeed in any fundamentalist work of fiction, in which the “saved” remain in a state of perfect grace from which they never budge and the “unsaved” can only hope to join them or perish in Hell. In Cabin In The Sky, the struggle between God (represented by an angel dressed like a Union general) and Satan (represented by his ambitious son, Lucifer Jr.) for the soul of man resembles a competition between two rival companies for an important client’s money; a competition in which both parties are willing to circumvent laws and exploit loopholes to get their way.
This playful, at times almost irreverent attitude towards religion is reflected in the musical numbers. As would become characteristic of his style, Minnelli shoots them in long tracking shots that pan away from his actors and back again, drawing the viewer deeper into the song and allowing more complete action within them. Suspended in the unity of movement and time, the viewer experiences the characters’ dancing and singing as extensions of their natural corporal expression rather than interruptions thereof, which makes the small disturbances at the end of their numbers – such as Joe breaking his walking stick in the final notes of the title song or Petunia’s odd clapping and tapping (accompanied by Joe’s shocked “Petunia!”) at the conclusion of “Taking A Chance On Love” – all the more remarkable. Little jolts of unexpected spontaneity such as these that elevate Cabin In The Sky from its regressive elements.
The very casting of Lena Horne as Georgia Brown functions in a similar way; being a 1940s single black woman who is sexually confident, independent and expressive, the plot naturally treats her as an almost literal puppet whose every action follows Lucifer Jr.’s instructions. Yet in spite of this structural misogyny, Horne’s natural sexiness blooms in every frame; far from denying, subverting or downplaying it, Minnelli’s direction exalts and exacerbates her to a state of impossible glamour. All of these choices, which include Lucifer Jr. making a passing reference to the ongoing Second World War (and possibly what little Americans knew of Nazi atrocities?) – “The whole trouble is I’m stuck with a bunch of B-idea men; all the A-boys is over there in Europe!” – demonstrate surprising political consciousness on the part of Minnelli and his team. So much of the story’s fundamentally puritan substance is undermined at every turn that the all-just-a-dream ending, while initially disappointing, comes across, in hindsight, as an inevitability.
Equally amazing is how perfectly these smuggled moments of audacity coexist with Minnelli’s masterful and sincere visual translation of the ideas and sentiments behind old-time gospel. Nowhere is it exemplified with more gusto than in the wonderfully spooky start of Joe’s near-death experience, in which a giant shadow darkens the room before reducing itself to reveal the shape of Lucifer Jr. against the wall, all while the curtains on Joe’s window billow in a silent wind. In moment such as this, which strangely recalls Reverend A. W. Nix’s classic hellfire-and-brimstone singing sermon “Black Diamond Express Train To Hell”, the songs and tales that founded Black American Christianity come alive with wit and imagination that no fundamentalist cartoon could ever hope to match.
Cabin In The Sky was Vincente Minnelli’s first feature-length film, with an uncredited Busby Berkeley directing John William Sublett’s performance of “Shine” near the film’s climax. Boasting an impressive cast of black singers and musicians that included Louis Armstrong – whose musical number was sadly deleted, reducing his part to a mere cameo – and Duke Ellington, it earned well beyond its humble $679,000 budget, gathering a total of $1,953,000 at the box-office. Modern audiences may understandably be put off by its dated racial and gender politics, but keen observers will likely appreciate its ability to achieve small moments of transcendental humanity that temporarily break through the segregation era’s sociocultural barriers.