Though La La Land failed to win the top Oscar prize as predicted—thanks to a little film called Moonlight—it did take home six trophies and has been lauded by critics as being a fun throwback to the golden age of the Hollywood musical. While fans and critics fell in love with its whimsical dance numbers and jazz solos, here’s a question: How come Hollywood has never given Black musicals the same treatment?
There were Black musicals in the golden age, too. How come we still haven’t seen a studio revisit those films with the same reverence as Damien Chazelle’s film? In short, where is our La La Land?
This is something I’ve been waiting on for years. Yes, Dreamgirls got some nominations and even a win for Jennifer Hudson, but it is still the only Black “retro” musical to get such treatment in recent years. Instead, we have seen studios create films that revisit the glory days of Hollywood’s White cinematic past while ignoring the Black contributions to cinema of the 1940s through 1960s. However, it was our culture that helped lift the classic White musicals up in the first place. La La Land indulges in the same cribbing.
The film follows Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they try to achieve their acting and musical dreams, including Sebastian’s hope of becoming a famous jazz musician. But despite John Legend having a small part in the film and acting as the film’s executive producer, the very use of jazz in a film that hardly features Black actors (except for the one putting forth the money) smacks of the same appropriation used by old school musicals of the past. As Black Girl Nerds’ Valerie Complex wrote:
“…[T]he biggest violation here is the misuse of John Legend’s talents. His short and useless role consists of him rescuing Sebastian from total poverty by offering him a job. Once Sebastian starts working for him, he turns on his magical powers and informs Sebastian that there’s more to jazz music than just being a traditionalist. We get it. [Director Damien Chazelle] has a thing for jazz and a bigger hard-on for White men in the jazz scene. This irks me because it makes me feel his future films may not be very diverse.”
Let’s take a trip to the real La La Land—the history of retro musicals. For starters, as much as Fred Astaire gave all the props to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson for inspiring his tap career, Astaire was still allowed to become famous off the back of a talented Black dancer. Meanwhile, even though Robinson did have a lengthy film career, particularly his films with Shirley Temple, he was hardly ever the lead of his own musical, and he always played a subservient role, with few exceptions. In 1943’s Stormy Weather, Robinson plays opposite Lena Horne as her love interest, and he was the romantic lead in the 1937 drama One Mile from Heaven, in which African-American actress Fredi Washington plays a woman suspected of being a “quadroon-mulatto” woman who has fooled everyone into believing she’s the mother of a White child. Another exception in Robinson’s career is the 1935 film Hooray for Love, in which he plays the mayor of Harlem. However, despite the exceptions, Robinson’s talent was usually used to prop up the stories of White characters. Nevertheless, Robinson still showed his wealth of talent and star quality in his roles.
There are films such as 1958’s St. Louis Blues that go unrecognized by Hollywood today. The movie, starring Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway, tells the story of W.C. Handy, the man who brought blues to the mainstream (in a highly dramatized way, of course, including a love triangle). The film has a plethora of talent that, if the cast were White, would have achieved even bigger success.
The film is not just a musical; it’s actually a moment in Black history. How many times in the golden age of cinema was there a biopic of a Black innovator, told by an entirely Black cast, who gets to revel in his or her own culture on his or her own terms? You’d think someone would have decided to remake this film for modern audiences by now.
Meanwhile, films such as 1956’s High Society, a remake of A Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby as a jazz musician, uses Louis Armstrong and his band as both props and as proof of Crosby’s “legitimacy” as a jazz/soul artist.
Films such as 1957’s Funny Face use Black southern gospel and inspiration from Negro spirituals for a whole musical number. And don’t forget projects such as 1941’s Babes on Broadway, starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, which created an entire production based around blackface. This seemingly mocking move is made even more surprising because another number in the film attempts to pay homage to Black culture through a sanitized version of the Lindy Hop, a dance that originated from Black America.
Applauding the so-called “golden age” of Hollywood puts movies such as these on a pedestal while forgetting the Black film industry that existed during the same time, whose talented members made the films that are now called “classics” actually classic. Black Hollywood was marginalized by the mainstream White industry, of course, but its contributions to today’s Black cinema and, indeed, mainstream White cinema, shouldn’t go by the wayside. These films allowed for Black artistry and culture to be brought to the movie theater without being used as props or idea factories for White stories and characters. These films could also easily become the inspiration for the next Oscar-nominated musical.
I’ve mentioned St. Louis Blues as a possible contender for a remake or a point of inspiration for filmmakers, but the also aforementioned Stormy Weather is another great example of a Black musical that could be replicated or paid homage to in today’s cinema. Stormy Weather fully showcased Black dance and music, and although it lacked in the storytelling department (as several White vintage musicals also did back in the day but are still considered classics), it more than made up for it by doing what many at the time felt was impossible simply by being a mainstream film featuring an all-Black cast.
The 1954 film adaptation of the Broadway musical Carmen Jones is another great example. Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, is probably the closest classic Black cinema ever got to actually having a seat at the table when it came to Hollywood musicals, seeing how it was produced by Oscar Hammerstein II—a Hollywood heavyweight in musicals—and Otto Preminger, one of the industry’s most thought-provoking and envelope-pushing directors. The film does what Stormy Weather didn’t do—while Stormy Weather focused more on blues and jazz culture, Carmen Jones showed that the Black lens is universal by taking Georges Bizet’s Carmen and bringing it to a 1940s southern army base and, later, Chicago. The musical numbers, also featuring Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll, truly highlighted the amount of talent Black Hollywood had to offer and how that talent was squandered by the movie industry because of racism.
Porgy and Bess (1959), also directed by Preminger, is another example of opera showcasing how Black talent has no ceiling. The film, an adaptation of the 1935 opera by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, features Dandridge, Carroll and Bailey as well as Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Brock Peters giving life to the fictional early 20th century town of Catfish Row, S.C. The story is sad—Bess is a cocaine addict who can’t stay away from her evil boyfriend Crown, despite Bess’ love for Porgy, a disabled beggar. But the film could be the fertile ground for a brand new iteration of the musical, something that could possibly rival Les Miserables in Oscar nominations.
Hollywood filmmakers, I implore you to use these and other Black films of the past as inspiration for your next musical. Don’t limit yourself to the idea that prestigious musicals can look only a certain way. There is a ton of Black cinema history at your feet, begging to be acknowledged.
Belafonte, Dandridge, Bailey, Horne and others didn’t go through all the turmoil they went through in the industry just for their legacies and contributions to be forgotten. Just as countless films pay homage to Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers and others of the golden age, let’s finally have a musical that pays homage to the Black musical history of Hollywood.
Monique Jones writes about race and culture in the media. Follow her on Twitter @moniqueblognet.