Stormy Weather movie party spotlights Black Hollywood

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Penumbra Theatre Education Director Sarah Bellamy will discuss the film with Stephanie Curtis.
-Photo courtesy of Sarah Bellamy

“I’m hoping that people leave feeling like this is one of the great American movies,” says Stephanie Curtis, who will emcee a screening of Stormy Weather this weekend.

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) is presenting the 1943 movie, one of the first major studio films to feature an all-Black cast, in honor of Black History Month as part of its “Movie Party” series Saturday, February 26 at 7:30 pm at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.

It is hosted by Curtis, MPR senior producer for live events, but more known as “Movie Maven.” She and Penumbra Theatre Education Director Sarah Bellamy also will discuss, among many things, the evolution of Black performance. “We want to give some perspective, to talk a little bit about what were the things that held back those stars,” Curtis explains.

Stormy Weather features an all-star cast: Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins and the Nicholas Brothers.

“Even though these performers were monumentally successful in their own right, and legendary talent, they were still asked to perform specific kinds of Blackness,” adds Bellamy. “I think that there are some interesting questions to be raised in this film: Are we laughing with them or at them? Some of the moments — the blackface, the minstrel scene — [are] hard [to watch].”

Curtis says that by seeing the film in its entirety, rather than snippets such as those featured in tribute movies such as That’s Entertainment and That’s Dancing, she hopes Stormy Weather will be appreciated even more. “It’s not a movie that people have seen too many times. A lot of people think they’ve seen it because they’ve seen Lena Horne singing or seen that amazing Nicholas Brothers performance. They’ve seen sections, but they haven’t seen the whole thing.”

“The first time I saw the film, I saw a snippet of it when I was a teenager,” recalls Bellamy. “I was in awe of Lena Horne — I thought she was the most tremendous, beautiful person. I watched it again in preparing for this screening. I still have a tremendous amount of respect for those performers — their talent was just incredible.”

Just watching the two dancing Nicholas Brothers perform “is still jaw dropping,” asserts Curtis.
Both women also bemoan that Hollywood then and today still underutilized Blacks — this year’s Oscar nominees did not include any Black actors, actresses, directors or films for any major category.

“It’s all White. It’s astounding,” notes Curtis. “I don’t understand how it happens year after year, and what it will take [to change it]. It must be institutional racism…at these studios.”

Says Bellamy, “The media and the arts have long been geared toward a Euro-centric aesthetic. That doesn’t allow for diversity, a multiplicity of voices. I think the concern is that we need to widen the scope of representation. Black culture is so varied and so deep. The more we can have different [people] represented, the better.”

When asked how or who can put pressure on Hollywood to change and become more diverse, “This is not a top-down, or bottom-up type thing — it’s a real complicated process,” Bellamy responds. “I do think there are ways that we can begin to change the image. Certainly the more African American producers we have out there with real dollars, [the more] we can seed independent projects, the more writers we can cultivate [and] the more actors you [would] see hired in supporting roles and lead roles.

“I think that the film industry is slowly beginning to reflect the more diverse environment that we have,” surmises Bellamy. “Black life is rich and varied, and is truly indeed American life, and needs to be cultivated in a lot of ways.”

Bellamy hopes the “straight-ahead” discussion on cultural stereotypes depicted in Stormy Weather serve as “a jumping-off point in having a real conversation about what that meant, and what that required [of Black performers] at that particular time…is useful,” she points out.
“I want people to really think about what these performers had to do,” adds Curtis.

The Fitzgerald also will be transformed into a jazzy party hall for the February 26 occasion, courtesy of University of Minnesota Gospel Choir Director Sanford Moore, who founded the jazz ensemble Moore by Four, and actor-singer Dennis Spears.

“We talked about how could we make it more than just seeing the movie and get an entertaining evening,” explains Curtis, who also encourages all attendees to dress up in a similar style of the times. Pre-show tunes also will be played, she adds.

Finally, Bellamy says she would support more showings of past Black films. “I think that would be lovely, but I am not sure how that would happen. Black history for us is every day.”

Tickets to the Stormy Weather movie party can be purchased at the Fitzgerald Box Office, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul, or call 651-290-1200, or through Ticketmaster.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.