#273. Carmen Jones (1954)

I loved this movie but watched it with my guard up, given the times in which it was made: segregation, McCarthyism; I was thinking too about the fact that the movie’s got an entirely African-American cast but is directed by a white guy, Otto Preminger (who also made the puzzlingly iconic Laura), which then—seeing as we’re following a black female protagonist—brought to mind this binary thing that I read about a few years ago: the tendency for white authors to depict black women as either the slut or the mother, existing in relation to the men around them, and so I was on the lookout for how that might manifest here (it does, I think, if only slightly)—the movie’s an absolute delight when you relax into it but, given our times (this awkward and rhetorically spikey puberty period toward a more progressive and inclusive way of speech-life), it invites a palimpsest of lenses by which to study, excoriate, and celebrate it.

            I’m still not well-enough equipped to point out every manifestation of racist stereotypes, every backward notion, but the movie does feel almost a little bit too accessible. Like if this were a movie aiming for more than gestural inclusivity of African Americans into Hollywood, if it were trying to actually speak with a black audience, it would present a way of life that would feel real to a white audience but not so familiar. Director Oscar Micheaux, in the 1920s, gives us a more nuanced depiction of persecution, violence, degradation, perseverance, objectification and myriad other things incumbent on the African American experience.  

            For the foreseeable future, however, there’s no movie on the List to show, for example, a typical, mundane, Afro-American family with all the sorts of casual offhand references to cultural things that people outside of that culture wouldn’t understand. The example that comes to mind for those of us in Miami is the way that, in a Cuban-American household, cultural remarks and references are bounced around so casually that might give a non-Latinx guest pause.

            “What’s a chancla?”

            The guest who grimaces while visiting an Italian household cuz they hear of somebody’s plans to pour “gravy” over their pasta is, I guess, a stereotypical version of what I’m talking about. That a movie featuring black characters, striving to speak to black audiences about a black experience, would have rhetorical and gestural things, references, ideas that a typical white audience would probably find foreign. At least slightly.

            Anyway—that was just something I was trying to be mindful of. The only basis on which I feel qualified to evaluate the movie is its filmic qualities, and those qualities are good: the CinemaScope is beautiful; the eponymous Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is lithe and sultry and explosive and soulful, sings the fuck out of everything; and while the story feels like an awkward blend of operatic melodrama and skuzzy dime-novel convention, it’s an engaging vehicle for showcasing the talent of its cast.

            Hadn’t ever occurred to me until I was reading up on the movie afterward that this is based on Carmen, the old play, and it suddenly made me a tad less scathing about the bizarre ending, in which Jones is dragged into a broom closet by her former lover, Joe (Harry Belafonte), forced to her knees and then strangled to death in what does look like an uncharacteristic surrender to her awful fate.

            There’s supposed to be something like a love story between Jones and Joe, but I guess one of Preminger’s subversive moves as a ‘50s director is that it isn’t really romantic. It’s an affair. It’s torrid. Joe is abandoning a cartoonishly prim and cleancut girlfriend (fiancé?) in order to pursue what I imagine is a wildly passionate tryst with Carmen. It’s hard to tell who wants what out of this affair, which made me a little uncomfortable because I was seeing somebody with whom this was kinda the case. Kinda. Some elements were reversed but I guess it was essentially that we both really liked and maybe loved each other, were drawn hard to each other, but were also pulled apart by various things, one of those things being that we each harbored what felt at the time like a corrosive (and desperately suppressed) desire to explore new things with new people. It was a shit show in some respects but there was an undercurrent of communion and genuine love that I think we both flailed to protect. The ending was…dramatic. Go back to my October, November, and December 2018 posts to see some semblance of a chronicle.

            Anyway.

            Carmen Jones isn’t a masterpiece of a movie but it’s a gem of performances and gorgeous tawdry craft. Strongly recommended.

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