James Baldwin’s ‘Carmen’ ::: A Critique Of Class And Colorism In Cinema

I am not always sure what it is that makes multitudes of humans seek to glorify singular individuals. I am not always sure what it is that makes them forget how interwoven culture is to that point where they claim some person is a greater influence than that which influenced them to become a paragon of a particular culture. I am not always sure what causes people to praise others as if apologizing for their personal lack of success in similar fields. But, I have my beliefs…


Wrapped up tightly in my beliefs that I am diligently molding into my framework of critical thinking techniques specifically applied to US Media and Blacks is iconoclasm. A strong tool, not best or only, but damn strong, in my box of techniques is cultural criticism applied to those held in sacrosanct spaces. At times, it can be difficult to pull down idols lifted to divine status from my position, so it is necessary to call upon other gods for assistance. Such a god for me today is James Baldwin.


In Mr. James’s “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough”, he offers a media critique of Otto Preminger’s 1954 musical film, “Carmen Jones”, that stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. In this media critique, Mr. James demystifies this production and outlines its class bias and color coded symbolism of morality and amorality.


I quote at length when he writes:

And one is not allowed to forget for an instant that one is watching an opera (a word apparently synonymous in Mr. Preminger’s mind with tragedy and fantasy), and the tone of Carmen Jones is stifling: a wedding of the blank, lofty solemnity with which Hollywood so often approaches “works of art” and the really quite helpless condescension with which Hollywood has always handled Negroes. The fact that one is watching a Negro cast interpreting Carmen is used to justify their remarkable vacuity, their complete improbability, their total divorce from anything suggestive of the realities of Negro life. On the other hand, the movie cannot possibly avoid depending very heavily on a certain quaintness, a certain lack of inhibition taken to be typical of Negroes, and further, the exigencies of the story–to say nothing of the images, which we will discuss in a moment–make it necessary to watch this movie, holding in mind three disparate ideas: (1) that this is an opera having nothing to do with the present day, hence, nothing really, to do with Negroes; but (2) the greater passion, that winning warmth (of which the movie exhibits not a trace), so typical of Negroes makes Carmen and ideal vehicle for their graduation into Art; and (3) these are exceptional Negroes, as American, that is, as you and me, interpreting lower-class Negroes of whom they, also, are very fond, an affection which is proven perhaps by the fact that everyone appears to undergo a tiny, strangling death before resolutely substituting “de” for “the.”


“Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough”, James Baldwin, essay found in “Notes Of A Native Son”, pg. 50-51


Hold up, y’all, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that sheer wit and grace that is Mr. James’s sarcasm here. My man legit wrote,”an affection which is proven perhaps by the fact that everyone appears to undergo a tiny, strangling death before resolutely substituting ‘de’ for ‘the'”. My god, my god, my god!!! Alright, back to our previously scheduled programming…


He continues his reading of this work in this next paragraph. Here, he outlines how shades of skin hue are used to create a color-coded system for character morality. In his own writing:


A movie is, literally, a series of images, and what one sees in a movie can really be taken, beyond its stammering or misleading dialogue, as the key to what the movie is actually involved in saying. Carmen Jones is one of the first and most explicit–and far and away the most self-conscious–weddings of sex and color which Hollywood had yet turned out. (It will most certainly not be the last.) From this point of view the color wheel in Carmen Jones is very important. Dorothy Dandridge–Carmen–is a sort of taffy-colored girl, very obviously and vividly dressed, but really in herself rather more sweet than vivid. One feels–perhaps one is meant to feel–that here is a very nice girl making her way in movies by means of a bad-girl part; and the glow thus caused, especially since she is a colored girl, really must make up for the glow which is missing from the performance she is clearly working very hard at. Harry Belafonte is just a little darker and just as blankly handsome and fares very badly opposite her in a really offensive version of an already unendurable role. Olga James is Micaela, here called Cindy Lou, a much paler girl than Miss Dandridge but also much plainer, who is compelled to go through the entire movie in a kind of tearful stoop. Joe Adams is Husky Miller (Escamillo) and he is also rather taffy-colored, but since he is the second lead and by way of being the villain, he is not required to be as blank as Mr. Belafonte and there is therefore, simply in his presence, some fleeting hint of masculine or at least boyish force. For the rest, Pearl Bailey is quite dark and she plays, in effect, a floozie. The wicked sergeant who causes Joe to desert the army–in one of many wildly improbable scenes–and who has evil designs on Carmen is very dark indeed; and so is Husky Miller’s trainer, who is, one is given to suppose, Miss Bailey’s sugar-daddy. It is quite clear that these people do not live in the same world with Carmen, or Joe, or Cindy Lou. All three of the leads are presented as indefinably complex and tragic, not after money or rhinestones but something else which causes them to be misunderstood by the more earthy types around them.

“Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough”, James Baldwin, essay found in “Notes Of A Native Son”, pg 51-52