Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film

Arthur Knight,
Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film.
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.
ISBN 0 8223 2963 8
338 pp
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Arthur Knight’s Disintegrating the Musical examines the place of African American performance in the film musical, tracing both its histories in, and impact on, the genre. Knight has set himself no small task, for while African American performers may have often been marginalised or contained in “specialty numbers” in the musical, it is hard to think about the Hollywood musical without acknowledging and addressing the key role that black vernacular dance styles and black music – and performers such as the Nicholas Brothers, Bill Robinson, and Lena Horne – have had on its development. Knight’s book makes a valuable contribution to studies of the film musical, offering the first book-length study of black performance in both the Hollywood musical and the race film musicals of the 1930s.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to fully address this history in one volume and Knight has, understandably, narrowed the scope of the project. Knight undertakes his analysis of black performance in American musicals by focusing on two groups of films -the cycle of black-cast Hollywood musicals that appeared between the late 1920s and the late 1950s (films such as Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather [US, 1943] and Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky [US, 1943]), and the race film musicals of roughly the same period (with films such as Oscar Micheaux’s Swing [US, 1938]).

In other words, Knight approaches his topic by focusing on films in which black musical performance is central to the film as a whole – both narratively and performatively – rather than turning to films in which it is a “contained” presence (as with the specialty number) and/or an invisible, muted, or erased presence (as for instance in many of the uses of black vernacular dance styles by white performers in Hollywood films). This focus certainly has many benefits for the project. But, as I will go on to argue, by limiting the field to films in which black musical performance (including blackface) is central to the narrative, Knight also limits his discussion of the implications of the history of black performance in the musical for our understandings of the genre.

There are two central interrelated concerns that drive Knight’s book, each of which is explored in relation to the two groups of films he focuses on. On the one hand he is interested in what he calls “the dilemmas of black musical (mis)representation” (18). This focus serves as the organising principle for the first half of the book which looks at the history of blackface performance on the stage, in Hollywood cinema and race film musicals. One of the most interesting aspects of Knight’s book is his account of the critical debates that took place around blackface in the black press in the first half of the 20th century, and his discussion of the history of black blackface performance and its precarious (and for Knight, deeply problematic) “mass mediation” with its move into film, charts new terrain in studies of the history of blackface. On the other hand, Knight is interested in “the ways in which black musicality is made generic” in Hollywood cinema (18). This concern provides the focus of the second half of the book where he turns more directly to the black-cast musicals.

Knight’s structuring of his book around these two groups of films and two central concerns enables him to develop his critical rethinking of the history of blackface in the American film musical and to undertake detailed readings of films that have received little critical attention in contemporary film debates (and it is remarkable just how little attention films such as Stormy Weather have received in previous studies of the musical). But this focus on the black-cast musicals and the race film musicals – at the expense of some of the other ways that that black performance has impacted on the genre, and indeed, changed through it – also raises a number of questions about the relations between the book’s project and the book’s title. The title plays, of course, with some of the various meanings of integration – both social (racial integration) and generic (the integration of music/dance numbers with the film’s story in the “integrated” film musical), and to a lesser extent, economic (the vertical integration of the studio era Hollywood film industry). While Knight discusses these various meanings in his introduction, the relationship between the project suggested by the title and that of the book itself is often less clear. At times one is left wondering if what Knight is setting out to do is to generically disintegrate the musical (in the sense of challenging the very terms in which we have understood the genre and its history by examining the place of black performance, and indeed ideas of black musicality, within it), or whether he is wanting to focus on forms and practices of black performance in musicals that challenge the parameters and workings of the genre (and this would certainly seem to be a key concern in his chapter “‘Aping’ Hollywood” on the race film musicals). For the intent to be the former, the book would probably have to engage more extensively with previous theoretical work on the film musical to enable such a critical rethinking of the genre. [1] If Knight were to argue the latter, the book would need to undertake more detailed analyses and discussions of what he so suggestively calls those “fugitive performances, which nestle in the nooks and crannies of the musical” (2).

This question of the relation between the book’s title and its work is also tied to the potential scope of Knight’s project and thereby also to the choices he has (understandably) made in organising the book around particular questions and groups of films. For there would be a number of ways that one could begin to approach “black performance and American musical film” (the terrain indicated by the book’s subtitle) and the ways it may enable something like the “disintegration” of the musical. For instance, one could trace the impact of black stage musicals such as Shuffle Along on the format of the Broadway show and thereby also on the Hollywood musical. One could also address the largely unacknowledged labour of African American dancers, choreographers, and musicians in the Hollywood film musical and the impact of this work on the development of the genre. And, of course, one could focus on the specialty number and its place and function in the film musical. For instance the remarkable dance sequences by the Nicholas Brothers in Irving Cumming’s Down Argentine Way (US, 1940) and Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (US, 1948), or many other specialty numbers by African American performers in a range of Hollywood musicals too numerous to list here. These numbers were more often than not – and continue to be – the highlights of the films in which they appear. Indeed, they often outshine and drown out all else in the films that precariously house them. [2] And while the specialty number was not exclusively the terrain of African American performers, it was the point in the musical (and in other genres as well) where black vernacular music and dance – and African American performers – were most likely to be visible and audible.
While over the last ten years there have been a small number of groundbreaking essay-length studies that address some of these issues (such as Carol J. Clover’s essay “Dancin’ in the rain” [3] ), much work still needs to be done on the place of black performance in the musical. Knight’s book certainly charts new terrain here, particularly through his attention to the black cast musicals, but there is much that he can only gesture toward. And one of the key losses, for this reader at least, is the specialty number.

Knight certainly mentions the specialty number and its important place in the Hollywood musical, but as he writes in his introduction, it is an area that he has had to leave to the side, largely because of the practical difficulties that would arise in researching these sequences. The sheer number of these specialty numbers would certainly make research difficult, and as their performers usually went uncredited, they would not always be easy to locate. In addition, the sequences themselves have tended to wander, turning up in (and as) other films and musical shorts. But these sequences pose a number of questions to our understandings of the musical. As their name suggests, these numbers were not integrally tied to the film’s narrative and as such they could be easily removed from the film, as was frequently the case when the films in which they appeared were screening to white audiences in the southern states of the U.S. What role do such numbers have in these films? In what ways may their presence (and their potential or actual removal) require us to rethink the genre’s form? How do they impact on the reception and circulation of the films in which they appear? This is an area of the film musical that has received very little attention in studies of the genre, and its sidelining in Knight’s book downplays one of the key means through which “black musicality is made generic.” (While Knight claims that it was the black cast musical that “anchored” this generic association, I would suggest that the specialty number would have had an equally important role in this association.) The specialty number is also, however, a key site where we find something like the project of the book’s title – the disintegration of the musical.

These numbers can serve to disintegrate (our understanding of) the musical’s structure through the degree to which they can operate as self-contained units; they can disintegrate the musical in terms of the forms of racial segregation that they can both arise from and produce in a film; and the performances themselves can disintegrate their “hosting” films by outshining them (as with Cab Calloway’s performance in Andrew L. Stone’s Sensations [US, 1945]). In short, while not wanting to romanticize these acts and their work, the specialty number would nevertheless seem to be a key site for the kinds of “fugitive performances” that Knight mentions in his introduction.

So how then does the book’s title fit in relation to the book’s work? In some respects the “disintegration of the musical” comes down to what Knight posits as a central contradiction in many musicals. “The ultimate utopian feeling in the integrated musical,” he writes, “relied on an explicit social-racial segregation” (Knight, 16), and hence in the book itself he refers to “dis/integrated” musicals. Certainly it would be hard to dispute this aspect of Knight’s argument, but at the same time there is a larger and more suggestive project around black performance and the musical (and the musical’s disintegration) that haunts the margins of Knight’s book and only really takes centre stage in the introduction and coda. As Knight writes in the introduction:

In the face of the integrated musical, African American performers, spectators, and critics developed methods of dis/integration, sometimes taking Du Boisian advantage of segregation always watching and listening for – and often seeking to create – failures of utopian form and feeling out of which new forms and feeling might emerge, and seldom giving up on the complex possibilities of the ‘gift’ – sometimes refashioned as a joke, assault, or evasion – of African American music…However reluctantly, musicals – perhaps especially in their ‘more randomized, more fragmentary forms’ like specialty numbers, shorts, and marginal productions – offered African Americans access to those processes and remain as evidence of struggle, evidence that we should not let the overdetermined appeals of overlapping idea(l)s of integration to [sic] conceal. (16-17)

This suggestive passage indicates the scope and stakes of Knight’s project. The book is at its strongest when it is engaging with these questions – when, in short, it is addressing instances in the musical, and in musical performance, where we find such “failures of utopian form and feeling out of which new forms and feeling might emerge.” But there are also points in the book where these questions seem to fade from view and the project loses some of its force. Disintegrating the Musical seems to limit the exploration of its own, very interesting, arguments because of the ways it has (understandably) limited its field. As I’ve argued, the specialty number would seem to be particularly important here, offering a rich field for pursuing such an analysis of the possibilities, contradictions, and limitations of the Hollywood musical and the “utopian” aspirations it may have held, and continue to hold, for African American performers and spectators. Likewise, there are points where the book could perhaps benefit from more detailed analyses of particular performances (particularly in the chapters on the black-cast musicals), and also of dance performances: like much of the recent work on jazz and cinema. Knight has tended to overlook dance and dance numbers in favour of music, and in the process overlooked an important location for such “fugitive performances.” [4]  While recent work in dance studies has produced some fascinating research on black vernacular dance in the Hollywood musical, this is an area that is all too frequently overlooked in film studies. [5]

Disintegrating the Musical charts new territory in studies of the film musical, and the project that Knight has undertaken here will hopefully lead to more work in this area. (Knight suggests some directions in which this work could be pursued in his account of the origins of his book. Disintegrating the Musical, he writes, arose from his interest in a later period of black musical performance – black-cast musicals like Car Wash, blaxploitation cinema, and “integrationist – or even polyracial – pop musicals like Fame” [234], and he closes his book with what, in many ways, would seem to be a proposal for a second volume). Knight’s book is also of interest in relation to more recent film and video. For over the last ten years or so, the genre has been challenged in terms of its use of African American performers and black vernacular dance and music in a number of films and music videos. These would include the music videos for Michael Jackson’s “Black or white” (1991), Janet Jackson’s “Alright with me” (1991), and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). [6]  Knight certainly addresses these works (he closes the book with a discussion of Bamboozled and makes passing reference to Michael and Janet Jackson), but his book is also of value in that it sets out to provide an historical and conceptual background to some of this more recent work.

Jodi Brooks,
University of New South Wales, Australia.


[1] Since the publication of Knight’s book, Sean Griffin has published a very interesting essay on the differences between the MGM integrated musicals of the 1940s and the non-integrated musicals produced by Fox in terms of the kinds of spaces each provided for African American and other minority performers. See Sean Griffin, “The gang’s all here: generic versus racial integration in the 1940s musical,” Cinema Journal 42.1 (Fall, 2002).
[2] See Constance Valis Hill’s Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) for a fascinating and detailed discussion of the Nicholas Brothers’ work. Valis Hill’s book also discusses the reception of the Nicholas Brothers’ “Down Argentine Way” dance number on the film’s release. The popularity of the two brothers and the enthusiastic response to this dance sequence led to advertising the time into the film when the sequence would appear, catering to audiences who simply wanted to see this sequence. See Valis Hill pp.155-156.
[3] Carol J. Clover, “Dancin’ in the Rain,” Critical Inquiry 21.4 (Summer 1995). In this essay Clover examines the place of African American vernacular dance in the Hollywood musical, and in Singin’ in the Rain in particular. Kelly and Donen’s film, she argues, is haunted by an “anxiety of influence of a peculiarly American sort” (Clover, 727). It is a film, she writes, that worries about the fact that “too many of the unseen artists whose moves have been put to such brilliant and lucrative use in the ‘white dancer’s field’ of the film musical are black.” (Clover, 729).
[4] See, for instance, Krin Gabbard’s Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1996) and his edited collection Jazz Among the Discourses (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995), both of which sideline the importance of dance in jazz’s impact on cinema. Tap dancing for instance – from legomania through to rhythm tap–would seem to play a key role in jazz’s impact on and place in American cinema.
[5] See in particular, Constance Valis Hill, Brotherhood in Rhythm and Jacqui Malone, Steppin’ on the Blues.
[6] In varying degrees, these films and music videos have set out to (generically) “disintegrate” the musical by foregrounding both its lack of racial integration and the “forgetting” of the history of black performance and performers in the genre. See Clover, “Dancin’ in the rain” for a particularly interesting discussion of Michael Jackson’s “Black or white” in this regard.
Created on: Wednesday, 25 June 2003 | Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June 2003

About the Author

Jodi Brooks

About the Authors

Jodi Brooks

Dr Jodi Brooks is Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at University of New South Wales. Her essays have appeared in Screen, Continuum and Senses of Cinema.View all posts by Jodi Brooks →