[By Danielle Hall]
On a rainy day like today, I am reminded of my first introduction to early African American cinema history, and specifically to Katherine Dunham. In July of 2002, my father called my attention to a movie on the TCM channel and it was Stormy Weather (1943).
I had grown up watching a variety of film classics with my dad and was familiar with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple. I only knew of Lena Horne and Cab Calloway from Sesame Street and other TV shows, but an all-black cast film was a new phenomenon to me. So throughout my undergraduate studies, I researched performers and collected a variety of rare all-black films, some from Hollywood, but mostly independent productions.
Stormy Weather would be one of the first all-black cast major Hollywood productions that did not showcase African Americans in stereotypical servant roles (The other, was MGM’s release of Cabin in the Sky in 1943. Katherine Dunham had actually played the role of Georgia Brown in the Broadway production). Nonetheless, what audiences then and viewers now are able to see is a trajectory of black aesthetic materials (dance, song, comedy, even poetry) highlighting major black entertainers from vaudeville, the “chitlin’ circuit,” and Broadway.
I view Katherine Dunham as a black woman intellectual, and reviewing her that way is to consider her among a diverse group of artists (including but not limited to dancers), writers, scholars, and active thinkers of the time period, to critically examine the significance of her work in academia and in society, to better acknowledge how her work has informed our work, and examine the ways that she made African American culture accessible.
Katherine Dunham’s principled stand against the initial plans by film director Andrew L. Stone in the breakaway scene in Stormy Weather provides an important example of the black dancer as intellectual and cultural worker in action. Dunham is perhaps the only one who had the power to negotiate this dance sequence in the film for herself and her dancers. Stone’s initial vision for this scene was for Dunham and her group to dance dressed as pimps and prostitutes. As Dr. Halifu Osumare states in the documentary Free to Dance, Dunham’s response was “No, nothing doing!”
Dunham was strategic and intransigent when it came to her celebrity and black representation. There is no doubt that she understood the magnitude of this film during a period of American dualism: patriotism on the home front amid WWII and concomitant Jim Crow discrimination for black people. The deviation from the “street scene” into a dreamy yet sultry ballet only happened because Katherine commanded a new identity and representation of black people and black dance. Dunham’s willingness and agency to leverage her authority as an artist and intellectual to create a particular outcome remains one of the many examples why she was successful in communicating that idea in this dance sequence and throughout her career.
Danielle Hall is a Spoken Word poet from St. Louis, Missouri, and a second-year graduate student in the department of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she also serves as a program coordinator for the Black Studies Program and as a Fellow for the Eugene B. Redmond Collection.