Friday, November 27, 2020

Thankful for “Cabin in the Sky”

Thanksgiving is a good time for nostalgia. This year I find myself nostalgic about my late parents, whose tastes in movies (and so much else) undoubtedly shaped mine. They loved musicals, and one of their very favorite, released well before I was born, has become special to me as well. I’ve seen it countless times on TV’s late-late show, and some of its best gags (like a young demon bragging about his prowess as an evil-doer by proudly announcing, “I invented flies”) were catchphrases in my family for years.

 Cabin in the Sky (1943) is a fantasy, based on a popular Broadway show in the same vein as Green Pastures, which means it boasts an all-Black cast, drawn from the ranks of the era’s most popular entertainers. The central female role, Petunia Jackson, is played by the great Ethel Waters, who similarly graced the stage version. Also featured are many of Hollywood’s favorite performers: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Petunia’s erring husband; Lena Horne as a devilish femme fatale; Louis Armstrong in a comic role, Duke Ellington’s band tooting away in a big nightclub scene. The songs are instant classics: “Taking a Chance on Love,” “They Say That Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” The film is directed with a light and loving touch by Vincente Minnelli, at the very start of his legendary film career. (The word is that he accepted this directing assignment when more experienced white directors wouldn’t touch it.)

 So what’s it about?  We start in a cozy all-Black community that’s full of pious folk (a rollicking gossip hymn, “Little Black Sheep,” kicks off the film) but also some serious temptations like crap games. Petunia is saintly, but her beloved husband, Little Joe, can’t stay away from the dice. We segue to the realm of Lucifer Jr. and his demons, who are always trying to stir up trouble among earthly sinners. They tempt Little Joe with a winning lottery ticket, then send the gorgeous Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to seal the deal. The climax, at Jim Henry’s jazz joint, seems to promise eternal damnation for several of the characters, but (surprise!) goodness wins out in the end.

 There was a time when Cabin in the Sky was chased out of Southern movie houses because many white patrons were offended that so-called “sable” performers were onscreen playing something other than maids and shoeshine boys. Today, it’s easy to see how the film might offend African-Americans who consider its portrayal of Black life condescending. I put the question to my friend Clifford Mason, the playwright and theatre historian who takes seriously indeed the portrayal of Blacks on movie screens. As always, he was candid, speaking about this show as what he calls “race neutral,” this being “the popular method by which America allows Black Americans to participate in the cultural life of the country through the clever method of NOT talking about race.”  He insists, with obvious sarcasm, that Cabin in the Sky is “just a nice, pleasant entertainment with nice pleasant neegrows doing what America loves to see them do: sing and dance.” In pretty much the same category, Cliff puts everything from Porgy and Bess to The Equalizer to Madea, projects in which Blackness is decorative rather than something to be seriously explored. 

 I can’t really argue. (I suspect that arguing with Cliff Mason would put me at a grave disadvantage.) Still, for my money Cabin in the Sky is a film in which good performers play good (and deliciously bad) people, and no one can convince me not to love it.

Update: on December 14, 2020, Cabin in the Sky was announced as one of the 25 additions to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry for its contribution to American art and culture. Hooray!

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