Examining U.S. history through the lens of classic Hollywood might not be where most books would point readers curious about the cultural climate for Black Americans in the 1930s.
But in her award-winning book “Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood,” Miriam Petty, associate professor in the department of film, radio and television at Northwestern University, explores how the film “Stormy Weather” (among others) captured the paradox of Black life nearly 100 years ago. Petty writes that despite its success, the film was a reminder of the wealth of Black culture and talent tuned out by systemic racism in Hollywood and beyond.
As part of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s programming series, “Archive Talks,” Petty will visit campus to discuss how the Black stars of the era worked to claim control over the meaning of their own images, what they represented for Black audiences at the time and how they ultimately came to “steal the show.”
The Feb. 19 event, which will be hosted in-person, will include a screening of “Stormy Weather,” a title that is part of the Archive’s collection including thousands of items relating to the representation of Black life documented in newsreels, narrative features and shorts, musicals, documentaries and more. Programming starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and will include a presentation by Petty and an on-stage conversation to follow the film.
In this Q&A, Petty tells us more about the significance of the film as well as how resources like the Archive, a division of UCLA Library, can inform scholarship like hers.
How did “Stormy Weather” represent Black joy for audiences of this time, and given the climate in Hollywood back then why was this so significant?
Miriam Petty: The notion of Black joy is an interesting one to consider for “Stormy Weather.” The film is essentially a cavalcade of performances by some of the most virtuosic Black dancers, singers and comics of the time, many of whom would not be seen in any other mainstream films. Because African Americans were so effectively marginalized in most Hollywood films, the production of one like this, featuring an all-Black cast, would be a meaningful source of pride for many Black moviegoers. And this cast was filled with performers who were well known to Black communities throughout the U.S., even as they were lesser or unknown to non-Black viewers. In addition to the better known leads and supports of the film, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lena Horne (who was then an up-and-coming starlet), as well as famed band leaders like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, Black audiences were as familiar with performers like musicians Dooley Wilson and Zutty Singleton, singer Ada Brown and dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, because they toured and performed in segregated Black venues. Their successes and challenges were chronicled in Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Afro-American and the California Eagle. For many Black viewers, the “joy” of a production like “Stormy Weather” was seeing these talented people who were otherwise sidelined by American racism, being allowed to share their gifts and enjoy substantial accolades in a major studio’s film.
Your study “Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood” focuses on a very particular window of time. What initially interested you about this era in Hollywood for Black entertainers and audiences?
The 1930s is a paradoxical time for Black actors, as the first decade in which they began to receive individualized screen credit for their performances. Audiences knowing and recognizing individually named Black performers created the condition and possibility for Black stardom. However, the kinds of roles they were typically allotted set them up to be stars on challenging terms; they were primarily cast as servants: maids, butlers, chauffeurs, Mammies, etc., and typically did not have their own plotlines or the kind of character development that would allow them much latitude.
The 1930s is also important because of conditions in the film industry that had a disproportionate impact on Black entertainers. For example, during this era it became a regular practice that all movie stars’ images were shaped and controlled by the studios they signed contracts with. Among the five major studios (MGM, RKO, Warner Bros, Fox and Loews), executives could stipulate what their stars said and wore, and could generally govern their public appearances, all in addition to deciding what films they could or could not “star” in.
For Black performers, most of whom did not get to the level of popularity to sign these “option contracts,” it meant that their performances were marginal and understood as relatively unimportant; their appearances could easily be cut or edited out of films. For the Black stars who did sign these contracts, their stardom (again, including public appearances) was defined and controlled along the lines of the racially stereotyped characters they were given to play. Finally, the advent of sound film, which occurred at the end of the 1920s and ultimately supplanted silent films during the 1930s, provided new opportunities for Black performers, as Hollywood studios navigated the new technology and sought voices and sounds that would engage and draw audiences. African American music, which was enjoying new visibility as a result of the post WWI “Great Migration” of Black people from Southern to Northern and Western areas, and Black culture enjoyed a vogue across a variety of media (records, film and radio) at this time.
How can we better use “Stormy Weather,” and Hollywood in general, as a lens to study Black history in the U.S.?
I think “Stormy Weather” is an amazing and arguably tragic example of the amount and caliber of Black talent that has been routinely excluded, marginalized or undermined in the service of American white supremacy. And it is an example that translates to other nonwhite groups, including Native and Indigenous peoples and Latina and Latino people. The centering of a white American ideal has consistently meant devaluing or ignoring anything that ostensibly challenges the idea that white exclusivity is a marker of “excellence,” and that the few nonwhite persons who make it into predominantly white spaces like Hollywood are “exceptional” along these lines. A film like “Stormy Weather” exposes this blatant fallacy, even as such movies’ relative rarity demonstrate that those who benefit from this ideology still succeed in gatekeeping more texts like it out of existence.
It's neat to think that your research for the book took place at UCLA in the Archive Research and Study Center located at Powell Library. Can you explain more about how entities like the UCLA Film & Television Archive are important to your scholarship?
Archives are essential to my scholarship because of the work they do to preserve the evidence of film and media history for a fuller picture of the scene of production, distribution and exhibition, especially from longer past eras like the 1930s. UCLA’s Film & Television Archive was easily one of the single most important archives that I visited while researching and writing “Stealing the Show.” UCLA’s strengths in collecting extensive studio records and files, film scripts, as well as preserving and restoring entire films, clips, and segments, many of which I could not see anywhere else, helped me realize a complex and compelling vision for “Stealing the Show” that would have been impossible otherwise.
While the film’s production wasn’t without its faults, what were some of the ways it shaped Hollywood for Black performers and audiences? What can the industry still improve on today?
The opportunity that “Stormy Weather” provided, industrially and culturally, is echoed in contemporary films that center Black people, communities and multiverses. “Stormy Weather” provided an opportunity for Black entertainers to work and perform at a center of American culture, and likewise provided an opportunity for these performers’ talent and creativity to be seen by a wider variety of audiences than had ever witnessed them before. The plot of “Stormy Weather” also provides glimpses of an American history that was typically suppressed or denied — one in which Black people were patriots who fought and died to protect the country of their birth, and agents and active subjects who made networks of community and support among themselves. At the same time, what happened with many of the hyper-talented cast of “Stormy Weather” — their subsequent film appearances were few and far between — still happens all too often in the contemporary moments, with Black actors who receive accolades and even awards for individual performances, but for whom meaty and substantial roles are too few and far between afterward.