The black experience in America is one that is troubled by many factors and opening a history book more than denotes these various issues. Yet, even with the heavy awareness of a history of slavery, Jim Crow oppression and a hard earned Civil Rights movement that resulted in the deaths of many a prolific figure. A consensus that the black experience somehow did not extend to issues within popular entertainment is outright foolish and generally ill-conceived. Indeed, jazz and poetry were part in parcel to the popular culture of the time, but became a thing to be appropriated within white culture, much in the same way that primitivism would inject new life into the modernist art movement without really providing any justification to its origins and certainly not the equal point of access to the very artists with which the work was drawn. Now, when it came to Hollywood productions the black representation was far more troubling, certainly denoted this month with the various musicals I have watched, a variety of which use blackface in a very unapologetic manner, but this was far from the only genre to appropriate such imagery. I say all this to note the exceptional nature of something like Cabin in the Sky in its complete use of an entirely black cast, which included musical powerhouses of the time, particularly a dynamic and inspired turn by Ethel Waters who is moving as a troubled wife that simply wants the best for her husband. As the Warner Brother DVD notes at its beginning, the imagery present within Cabin in the Sky is not always the most ideal or positive when it comes to a representation of black culture during the time, however, there is something very aware in the filmmaking of Vincente Minnelli, who shoots the film in a very loving manner, allowing the performances to take on an heir of the natural, as opposed to some of the more hyper-performative things that happened in early all-black films, most notably Green Pastures. Sure it is far from a perfect film in terms of racial depictions, but it is void of blackface and aside from a few unfortunate instances this really is a testament to the magnificent performance art coming out of the African-American community in the thirties and forties.
Cabin in the Sky focuses on the life of Little Joe Jackson (Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) a dice gambler who is down on his luck and owes considerable money to various gamblers in his community. However, Joe realizing the error of his ways has taken to a life of improvement, inspired by his loyal and devout wife Petunia (Ethel Waters). Unfortunately, since his gambling is a considerable addiction, the rediscovery of a set of calamity cubes in his drawer followed by the prodding of local loan sharks, leads to Joe foolishly returning to the local gambling saloon, only to become caught up in a fight, in which he is stabbed in the process. This near fatal would leads to the religiously confused Joe to be a point of confrontation between hell and heaven, each believing that they have the right to his soul. Hell is represented by Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram) who posits that Joe must necessarily spend his eternity in hell because while on Earth he was suspectible to gambling, boozing and the provocations of the local temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Yet, The General (Kenneth Spencer) represents the side of Heaven and asserts that considering the heavy amount of praying being undertaken on the part of Petunia that he should be given a chance for heaven. In a religious bargaining, both sides agree to give the morally ambiguous soul of Joe six months to correct his ways, although his earthly spirit will have no recollection of the events prior, instead; having only his world and conscious to make his decisions. At this point the battle for Joe's sole does take on spiritual proportions as both Lucifer Jr. and The General exact their sway on the individuals in the world, as well as the natural world around them in order to save Joe. Lucifer Jr. attempts to play into Joe's weakness for gambling, using trickery to make him win a large amount of money in a lottery, one that causes individuals like Georgia Brown and his former loan sharks to come hunting for his money. In contrast, The General uses the spirituality of Petunia to push Joe towards salvation. All of these events lead to a climactic, jazz-infused confrontation with both sides that layers into a larger narrative in regards to where salvation truly occurs.
Cabin in the Sky is perhaps one of the great considerations of religious navigation and how one attains salvation and seeks forgiveness. While I will not be able to review it anytime soon, I was able to catch up with Philomena and it is an equally ambiguous, but, nonetheless astute observation on how one navigates the world of salvation. I would place Cabin in the Sky second only to Secret Sunshine in its look at how factors beyond simple faith or penance play into a person's ability to find religious understanding. Joe is a troubled character who clearly wants to correct the wrongs in his life, looking initially to do so through financial means, as it is a world he understands as a result of his crippling gambling addiction. This is clear in his choice to buy Petunia a electric washer for their house, despite having no electricity with which to run the appliance. He assumes that what Petunia wants is a means to make her physical labors lessened, although she constantly asserts that she wants Joe only to be appreciative and around for her to love, as Joe's own salvation becomes more clear and define, to do his actions towards Petunia, bringing her gifts that he had to labor to accrue, most notably the simple, yet sweet, gesture of picking wild flowers. It is this understanding that his own actions have come from the natural world that inspires Petunia to note the brilliance of God in the natural world. Indeed, much of Joe's frustration and trouble comes from the mechanized and industrialized world, his connection to the damnation in the saloon or Georgia Brown's arriving via train. This film, while somewhat troublesome in its context, seems to suggest that happiness is tied to understanding that not all joy and affection can be produced, indeed, when money is placed into the narrative, even Petunia becomes jealous, asserting that her frustration comes from Joe offering money to Georgia Brown, when it is somewhat clear that it is more a result of catching the two together, without understanding that Joe was doing his best to deter her advances. The narrative does posit the absolute power of the natural to shift the order of things as a certain tornado comes to solidify Joe's final push towards salvation through a cataclysmic cleansing.
Key Scene: The "consequences" song between Anderson and Horne is a moment of natural, simplistic aural contrast in an otherwise wholly visual film and it sticks out in an emotionally stirring way.
This is available via the Warner Archive and the DVD looks like near HD quality. It is worth your time if you are fascinated by race in American cinema or musicals at their most realized.