In 1943, the year that Cabin in the Sky was released, Memphis film critic Lloyd Binford “ruled that city and county movie screens could depict blacks only in roles of subservience,” according to Allyson Hobbs’ A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. “During the same year,” continues Hobbs, “the Memphis Board of Censors passed a resolution that ordered that ‘no moving picture shall be exhibited… in which an all negro cast appears or in which roles are depicted by negro actors or actresses not ordinarily performed by members of the colored race in real life.’”
The all-star Hollywood adaptation of a Broadway play, Cabin in the Sky features a veritable who’s who of African American performers, leading off with Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Butterfly McQueen, and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. The musical, VIncente Minelli’s first feature, was the fourth all-black film from a major studio since the advent of sound. The plot centers around the battle for the soul of hapless gambler Little Joe, who is wounded in a barroom brawl. Both Lucifer Jr. and God’s General want Little Joe, while his wife Petunia, prays for him to have a second chance at life so he can enter the kingdom of heaven.
For African Americans, Cabin in the Sky represented a half-step forward and two full steps back. As curator/critic Harry Heuser notes in his article “A [Third-Class] Cabin in the Sky,” “Whose fantasy is this? Pressing social issues such as poverty and illiteracy among African Americans are comically exploited in a story concerning a notorious player in pursuit of the American dream who cannot even decipher the letter that notifies him as a Sweepstakes winner. It is faux folklore in which black folks perform their parts according to a set of white stereotypes. Through its primal plot of good versus evil, this other Cabin not merely proposes a moral code for black Americans but endorses their subservient role in society.”
The film was clearly not a message movie, yet the spectacular performances of Waters and Horne in particular make for important viewing despite the heavy-handed script. Memphians finally got to decide on their own whether Cabin in the Sky was worth the price of admission in 1955, when Jet Magazine reported that the 88-year old Binford greenlighted screenings of three old all-black films: Hallelujah, which was shot in Memphis, Green Pastures, and Cabin in the Sky. Binford, Jet reported, “said he objects to movies showing Negroes and whites as ‘social equals.’”
Writer, filmmaker and producer Willy Bearden will introduce Cabin in the Sky and lead a short discussion after the screening.
Director: Vincente Minelli | USA | 1943 | 98 minutes
$9/$5 Brooks members and students with valid ID/Free with VIP Film Pass.
Tickets are available online until 2:30 pm the day of the screening or 2:30 pm on Friday for weekend matinees. Tickets are also available at Visitor Services, or by calling 901.544.6208 during regular business hours. Unsold tickets are also available in the rotunda immediately preceding a screening.
Banned in Memphis is an ongoing series of film screenings highlighting work banned from Memphis theaters by Lloyd Binford, the head of the Memphis Censor Board for 28 years. Regarded as “the toughest critic in America,” the former railway clerk turned insurance executive was notorious for his views on white supremacy, womanhood, and outsider views of the American South. Binford banned films with African American stars or unsegregated scenes, films that featured violence or teenage rebellion, and even film that he disliked because of the personal conduct of the actors rather than the content of the script.
Upcoming screenings in the series include:
The Outlaw, introduced by author and archivist Vincent Astor.
Wednesday, July 12 | 7 pm
Stromboli, introduced by author and columnist Richard Alley.
Wednesday, August 23 | 7 pm