Fall 1998 Volume XXVIII, No. 1
Rethinking the Rhapsody
by Richard Crawford
New Music Notes
Time to Remember Zez Confrey by Artis Wodehouse
Behind the Beat
Widening the Lens II
A Centenary Moment?
by Stephen Banfield
Gershwin on Disc
Country and Gospel Notes
Porgy and Bess–The Film
One of the highlights of ISAM’s November 1998 Gershwin Centennial Festival was a screening of the 1959 film adaptation of Porgy and Bess. Directed by Otto Preminger, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and starring Sidney Poitier (Porgy), Dorothy Dandridge (Bess), and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Sportin’ Life), the film was highly controversial when released in the early days of the civil rights movement. Following a short theater run, the picture was removed from circulation for various legal, political, and artistic reasons and had not been publicly screened in nearly forty years. Thanks to the cooperation of the Gershwin and Heyward estates and Goldwyn Entertainment, and the UCLA Film archive for providing a print, ISAM was able “break the ban” and screen the film in Brooklyn College’s Whitman Auditorium. Prior to the screening a group of scholars, whose interests ranged from musicology and film to American and cultural studies, gathered to reflect on Preminger’s film and Gershwin’s opera. Highlights of the session are presented below.
Like Huck and Jim on their make-shift raft, these American geniuses wed the fortune of their place in American culture to real or imagined black characters–Jefferson to the slaves of Monticello, particularly Sally Hemmings; Twain to “Nigger Jim”; and Gershwin to Porgy. In so doing, they draw us back to a uniquely American question: can Whites and Blacks make their journey to freedom together by trading in the cultural coin and tender of e pluribus unum?
Despite their flaws, we are trapped in these unique expressions of American genius, and that is the strength of Porgy and Bess and one of the reasons the work endures. As much as we wish its complexity would go away, we cannot do without it. Even as a slaveholder, Jefferson’s vision of freedom provided generations of African Americans with the language of struggle, and Huckleberry Finn’s voice creates the possibility in American literature for Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas, James Baldwin’s John Grimes, and the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess allied itself with the contradictory African American ambitions of elevating the vernacular to the level of American high art and giving classically trained black singers a venue to demonstrate their skills. Generations of black and white musicians have reinvented Gershwin’s music so that it is now hard to tell where the white leaves off and the black begins. As we watch a film like Porgy and Bess, we should remember that even where it fails, it does not evade. In any of its versions, a part of Gershwin’s genius is to bring Blacks and Whites back to the raft to try to sort things out.
* * *
Preminger’s direction is intensely cinematic, his approach far more sophisticated than that of a filmed play. Replacing passages of recitative with dialogue, he has made no attempt to present the material as an opera. Music purists can certainly object to the fact that the singing voices of Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge are dubbed, that in supporting roles Pearl Bailey and a reptilian Sammy Davis, Jr. are pure musical comedy, and that André Previn’s often-majestic orchestrations sound more like 1959 than 1935. With his august presence and speaking voice, Poitier is a remote, dignified Porgy, a survivor. In effective contrast, Dandridge is an anguished Bess victimized by her beauty as well as her race and gender.
Quite contrary to its tarnished reputation, Preminger’s film is a magisterial pageant, a ceremonial work deeply respectful both to the intentions of Gershwin and his collaborators and to its black subjects. Far from a demeaning portrait of a segregated, impoverished black community, the film emphasizes group solidarity among the inhabitants of Catfish Row. Like the original work, it is a stylized presentation of a culture based on the truthful but inevitably detached observations of white outsiders.
Let’s hope that the triumphant Brooklyn showing will point the way toward the redemption of a superb work with an unwarranted reputation. This “forbidden” text demands to be shown exactly as it is here, on a large screen and with a sound system that can do justice to what may well be the most glorious theatrical work by an American composer.
* * *
In spite of the contradictory magnificence of the opera and the film, three facts reveal the troubling aspects of Porgy and Bess with regard to racial representation. 1) It traveled the same tortured path along which African American culture too often gets to the public: via Whites and third parties who give it their own interpretation. 2) It perpetuates a perception of black communities as God-fearing, combative, extremely erotic, drug addicted, uncritically superstitious, and happy with “plenty o’ nuttin’.” 3) Its contemporary relevance has been ensured by the crescendoing crisis of African Americans in the United States.
Because of America’s racial climate, past and present, this film is seen as a representation of pernicious political and racial exploitation. As audiences become increasingly aware of the sensibilities of people of color, the undeniably stereotypical features of the opera and the film have become even more problematic.
* * *
Most importantly, Porgy and Bess has changed because history has made it change, and has made us change too. When the film version was released in 1959, it was burdened by many expectations, presumptions and resentments. How pitifully few works of serious art featuring black characters and performers had entered mainstream American art or entertainment! What would this movie mean, artistically and politically, for “The Race”? Here we were, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, with its images of dignified uplifting struggle, and here were the beggars, drug pushers and whores of Catfish Row singing words like “I got plenty o’ nuttin’/an’ nuttin’s plenty fo’ me.”
How I worried back then (actually my parents worried more than I). For I did love and I still do love this big, musically ravishing, dramatically and racially tangled opera. And it is now possible for all of us to love it, question it, resent this passage, ponder that one, pity a simplification here, acknowledge accuracy there. We are all capable, if we bring everything we know and are to works like Porgy and Bess, of responding in all kinds of rich, unpredictable ways, ways that our race, class, and gender might not predict. The film, like the opera and novel, belongs to the American culture in which we live, and to the personal culture each of us invents for ourselves.