CABIN IN THE SKY
DVD COMMENTARY TRACK BY DR TODD BOYD, DR DREW CASPER, EVANGELA ANDERSON, EVA ANDERSON, FAYARD NICHOLAS AND LENA HORNE
Cabin in the Sky is a beautiful movie that everyone should see. It's one of the all time great movie musicals. The story, the acting, the dancing and the music are all excellent.
Not to be a total geek fanboy, but I want to take a few minutes to talk about the audio commentary track to the movie. Mostly I want to bitch about this ridiculous Dr Todd Boyd, but we'll get to that in a minute. There are several different people commenting over parts of the film from different perspectives.
Some of the best stuff came from Evangela and Eva Anderson, the widow and daughter of co-star Eddie Anderson. They didn't have much to say about particulars of this film, but mostly reminiscences of Daddy. Hearing their picture of Eddie just adds more love to the mix.
There were a couple of bits of audio here apparently not specifically recorded for this commentary track. There's maybe five minutes over a couple of bits with the elderly Lena Horne talking about her mostly not very happy experiences with Hollywood - though Cabin in the Sky sounds like it was probably her best personal experience in movie making.
There's also one very nice bit for just a couple of minutes with Fayard Nicholas of the awesome Nicholas brothers talking about their relationship with Ethel Waters, who was older than them and called them "my boys." I really like the idea of Ethel Waters cooking dinner for those nice young Nicholas boys. Nice details, and again adding more love to the mix.
About two thirds of the length of the film commentary is split about evenly between a couple of professors. Dr Drew Casper offered most of the real specific commentary about the actual movie. He's real good at showing points of how a particular camera angle in a scene implies the presence of the Lord, and the way lighting and shadows reflect the mood of a scene. I particularly appreciate him pointing out how the director made an especially effective transition at one point right at the end of the idyllic song "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" as Petunia's taking laundry off the clothesline. Just as the song ends, she pulls down a sheet - revealing Joe's no-good gambling "buddies" and instantly changing gears emotionally, ending the reverie and dropping directly into the next scene. Dr Casper offers some good insights and excellent pointers that will likely increase your appreciation of the film. This is what video commentary tracks are for.
But really just about as importantly, Dr Casper contributes to the love factor for the whole film. Besides the specifics of his analysis, it's really pleasing just to hear the tone of his voice as he dotes lovingly over the details. He positively adores Ethel Waters. Dr Casper's commentary is the next best thing to having someone there to share the love of this art with.
Then there's the commentary from Dr Todd Boyd. Listening to this guy's bland, rote delivery of hateful crap cheesed me off. Basically, this guy absolutely precisely and at movie length here pokes at one of my big pet peeves. I have beef with people insisting on adding on modern racial BS to denigrate old films with blacks in them for almost all being supposedly racist. A lot of schmucks writing reviews on the net seem much more interested in finding or just making up reasons to throw self-righteous racial hatred on almost anything rather than in enjoying the beauty. It's like they're a bunch of assholes, in the Team America meaning of the word, who just want to shit on everything.
Then there's this Dr Todd Boyd who appears to make a living at it. Dr Boyd is apparently a "professor of Critical Studies at the USC School of Cinema Television." Judging from his work here, it appears that Dr Boyd absolutely makes a career of nothing but making up largely unsubstantiated, arbitrary charges of racism against anything and everything - especially black performers. He pretty much spends the entire length of the film looking to riff on how almost every single character, costume and plot point was supposedly racist, stereotyped or otherwise "problematic". His hatefulness for this great piece of art pisses me off, and particularly his unbelievable disrespect for Louis Armstrong.
That perturbance, however, is a good reason to hear Dr Boyd out. I bitch about people hating on vintage black cinema for its supposed racism, but maybe I need to hear more than a couple of random dummies commenting at IMDB. Here's a proper professor giving his considered professional running commentary of this major film, commissioned by the studio. Let's hear what the good professor has to say. He doesn't seem to give a damn about any of the drama, music, comedy or pathos of the film. He's here to see how many things he can find some supposed racial problem with.
I've got three main basic beefs against his analysis. One will be the pure unearned hatefulness and disrespect of his comments. The second beef is that his complaints are based on little or absolutely no grounding. It's one thing to take something in the worst way, and then it's something else to just make up stuff that's not even there. My third and perhaps worst beef with Dr Boyd is the utter dumb mindlessness of his comments.
The guy's basic stock in trade consists of having a shoebox full of bad words and terms and looking for every place he can shoehorn one in, whether it has anything to do with anything or not. Besides being hateful, this stuff is intellectually beneath even being childish. He's a parrot trained to randomly repeat bad words, without regard to meaning anything. Stereotype awk! Aunt Jemima awk! Dr. Boyd's working on about the level of the manatee "writers" randomly picking idea balls out of the pool in the South Park version of the writers room for The Family Guy - except that all of the "ideas" here are derogatory and hateful.
For one little specific example here, he repeatedly describes Lena Horne's character Georgia Brown as representing "the stereotype of the tragic mulatto." Bull crap. He just made that up. For starters, there's pretty much no mention or issue made of race in Cabin in the Sky whatsoever. Basically, it's an all black cast telling a religious story. There's no notice paid anywhere in the movie that I can see of one character being darker or lighter than another. There are no intra-racial issues expressed at all. Besides which, the Georgia Brown character is not even vaguely tragic. In fact, it works out pretty nicely for her. Georgia Brown gets to have her fun, and then eventually repents and gets right with the Lord and apparently lives happily and righteously ever after.
To the end of just making up racism, Dr Boyd de-constructs a scene in which Lucifer conspires to have Joe win the lottery. Throw a bunch of money on him, and see how quickly he goes back to partying and whoring. As the demon imp Louis Armstrong puts it, "Give a man money, and watch him act funny." This corrupting power of money theme is basic church stuff, white or black or other. The Bible talks about how unlikely a rich man is to make it to Heaven. Money is the root of all evil, and stuff like that. Of course, Dr Boyd takes it that the message of this is to argue that black people don't know how to handle money, so it's all right to keep them pushed down and poor. Do you really need a PhD to come up with stuff like this? Did you study to be a "Dr." at Dr Pepper University? [I apologize for the slur against Dr. Pepper, who certainly makes a fine cherry cola.]
On top of which, Dr. Boyd is not that skillful at his hateful craft. A dumb hillbilly like me could do it better. For example, he reaches for the incredibly tired [indeed not just tired but dead and putrefied] racialist cliched complaint about the general use of the colors white and black to represent for good and evil - thus implying that black folks are bad. He picks it out here in noting that the angel General wears a white suite and Lucifer Jr wears black. But the same actor playing the angel (the excellent Kenneth Spencer) plays Joe and Petunia's equally righteous Rev Green - who dresses in black. Much more important, the angel under the suit was just as black as any of Lucifer's henchmen.
Brother Boyd, let a hillbilly learn ya how to play pin the tail on the honky. For all that nonsense, Dr Boyd missed the main good example with which he could have smeared poo-poo not just on the film makers, but also on superstar songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for the church song "Li'l Black Sheep." Obviously the very concept of a bad "black sheep" is racist. Besides which, the sheep goes back into the fold and has his sins washed away white as snow. Ohmygod, where's Dr Boyd leading a boycott against the studio for publishing such KKK sentiments as this song? Oh that's right, Boyd's on Whitey's payroll! Does this paid for forbearance make Dr. Boyd an Uncle Tom? I think the answer is pretty obvious. Hey, two can play the stupid game - and that's no stupider than a lot of what the guy says about this movie.
I particularly object to the hateful and baseless name calling, though I'm sure he'd insist that he meant no disrespect to Ethel Waters when he repeatedly describes her character as a stereotypical "Mammy" or "Aunt Jemima." Basically the only evidence he cites to establish this fact is that when she's working, Petunia ties her hair up with a handkerchief, or do-rag as we used to call it back in the hood in Indianapolis. Apparently it's racist to show black folk wearing cloth over their hair, though many black women and even men do so to this day. Why exactly would this be bad? It seems like a perfectly benign clothing accessory. Petunia's not shown acting in any negative way, or being subservient to white folks - there being none in this movie to start with.
The only thing Dr. Boyd says to establish that the main character is a problematic "Aunt Jemima stereotype" other than the do-rag is to note that her character is supposedly totally "asexual." That's just a dumb thing to say based on anything actually in the movie. Petunia adores her Joe. She's physically demonstrative and cuddly - though he spends much of the movie laid up injured or in a coma - sort of out of commission. The loving wife just isn't shown absolutely throwing herself on him that way like the whore from the bar. That doesn't mean that she's frigid. So what is that then, any black woman who is NOT absolutely a ho is an "Aunt Jemima"? Do you have to be a ho in order to be an authentic black woman? What if you wore a do-rag while you were whoring? Would you still be authentic? Can an Aunt Jemima be a ho as well? Please Dr. Boyd, elucidate this for a dumb hillbilly.
But that way of taking things gets at the cheap and cheesy second hand philosophical presumptions of Dr. Boyd. Without particularly explaining it, he seems to be basically utterly hostile to religion or basic ideas of common morals, which are apparently just tools for Whitey to keep black folks down. Notice how he describes Petunia as being "close to her religion." No, she's close to her Lord and Savior, Who is absolutely real in this movie and perhaps in the heavens. Who knows? In any case, the Lord as represented through the General stands for a very basic moral code.
This moral scheme of the movie which Dr Boyd regards as some alien oppression consists of only the gentlest general nudge of what most churches of nearly any faith tradition would hopefully preach. In Cabin in the Sky, the main thing the Lord wants is that men should work and stay home taking care of their wives rather than running with gangsters, gambling and whoring. To Dr Boyd, that stuff just seems to be something Whitey came up with to keep the Negroes submissive, unlike the truer and more authentic black characters, i.e. shiftless gamblers and whores. One might argue that holding up the riff raff as the true and authentic expression of blackness causes or at least exacerbates much of the dysfunction and suffering of the modern black community. These bad values are sure as hell a lot worse problem for the black community than do-rags or not whoring. Indeed, offering this bad behavior up as the model of authentic blackness itself seems like pretty severe racism to me.
Dr Boyd's so alienated from normal people that any church going black women seem like some interchangeable stereotype. Petunia Jackson and the sour Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son seem to be pretty much the same to Dr Boyd. The guy's supposed to be some professor of cinema and he has no finer nuanced powers of discernment than this?
The worst offense of Dr Boyd's commentary that specifically compelled me to comment here came in his absolutely disgraceful comments about Louis Armstrong, whom he repeatedly describes as an "Uncle Tom." Nigga please! At one point, he frames it as saying that a lot of the black community in his day supposedly regarded Louis this way. Did they? He hides behind this alleged opinion in the black community as cover to make the accusation himself, which strikes me as kinda cowardly. And even if there were some Negroes who would have said such a thing, that would only be evidence that a black man can run his mouth just as stupid and ignorant as a white one. Boyd spent Louis' entire scene on the Uncle Tom nonsense. That's all he had to say about the man. Yeah, Louis was the greatest genius in American music, but mostly he was an Uncle Tom. On top of which, he cited nothing whatsoever that Louis Armstrong had ever done to earn that name of shame. He cites nothing from what he does in this movie, or in any other aspect in life. By the third or fourth time he's calling Louis Armstrong an Uncle Tom, I'm wanting to slap the taste out of his mouth like I was Bonnie Bramlett in Columbus.
There's very little racial content to this movie. I don't see even one reference or inference to the concept of race in any way. You could have cast this movie with white actors reading the same script, and the biggest difference would be that the music probably wouldn't be as good. But Dr Boyd gets paid to find racial grievance, so he does so - even if he has to make it a BYOR party.
While we're at it, I want to address briefly some comments from Paghat the Ratgirl at her Wild Realm film review site. She loves Cabin in the Sky, and spends 95% of her extensive notes talking about how cool the movie is. She's not a hata like this Dr Boyd, but before she can show the love she has to give some obligatory boilerplate
A lot has been written of the racism & evasiveness inherent to the utopian romance of "separate but equal," white writers & white directors fantasizing a separatist rural world of utopian poverty & exaggerated religiosity as the only good life for African Americans.
But I like this film so much that I want more to address it as fine storytelling, & delightful music, & assume anyone who bothers to read about this film already understands the political takes, which I can skim past with awareness assumed. As in the main, this is a film that merits praise.
Now, Miss Paghat seems like a very nice ratgirl, but come on. Let's start with the presumptions of the word "evasiveness" here. It's an all black cast and doesn't at all deal with any issues of racism. Yeah, Jim Crow was wicked and bad. Got it. But was that all there was to being black? Was it some special requirement that black people should only be in movies about how bad Whitey is? They didn't "evade" racial issues in this film. It simply wasn't about that. Is it prima facie "racist" to make a movie with black people that doesn't carry on about bad old Whitey? What about movies with no black people in them? Isn't it racist that they don't have a black guy in the middle of Mrs. Doubtfire or Jackass with a soliloquy about the evils of slavery?
Then there's "utopian poverty & exaggerated religiosity as the only good life for African Americans." Really now Sister. Don't you think that maybe YOU brought some of that to the party? Where did you get the only from, for starters? Calling this "utopian" poverty seems pretty arbitrary and unfair. They didn't make a big point of showing the misery of poverty in this movie. Why should they have had to? That wasn't what the flippin' movie was about. Why should it have to be? Ma and Pa Kettle lived in poverty, but they were never shown as particularly suffering in misery. Did that represent a socially or politically condemnable whitewashed "utopian poverty"?
Miss Paghat seems to be somewhat on the same page with our Dr Boyd with the phrasing of "exaggerated religiosity." This movie could only seem to represent religious exaggeration to a non-believer who would think that of absolutely anyone with serious religious belief. The congregants in Cabin in the Sky seem to be fairly moderate in their expression. They're doing nothing but basic church stuff, singing and praying. They're not speaking in tongues, rolling in the aisles or doing anything obsessive.
Even a loving ratgirl has to piss on the movie a little bit before she's allowed to dig it. This seems to be a kind of ritual genuflection before some God of Progressivism required of all decent people. I'll just say that as a racially insensitive non-believer I reject the exaggerated religiosity of that.
"Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled." Titus 1:5
And then there's this official disclaimer from Warner Brothers. I will be charitable and presume that this poopie licking nonsense was utterly insincere and purely a CYA move, but here is the first thing you see when you put in the DVD. Oh, such moral righteousness that comes from a movie studio. They seem to advertise their insincerity with the beginning plural word "films" indicating that this was obviously generic boilerplate verbiage they put in front of numerous old films with black people in them. So I don't take too much offense, but nonetheless I beg to disagree that "these depictions were wrong then and are wrong today." This is just bogus made up criticism of Cabin in the Sky. It would be much more reasonable to express the sentiments of this disclaimer as regards Spike Lee movies, gangster films and most black comics and comedy movies. But not at these mostly good church going people in this movie. Such a disclaimer as this might be more appropriate in front of, say, a collection of NWA or Dr Dre or Snoop Dogg videos.
AL BARGER'S CRUSADE FOR MOORISH DIGNITY
CABIN IN THE SKY TRAILER, PAGE 1 2 3 4
HELL IDEAS DEPARTMENT IMAGES, PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
ETHEL WATERS "DARKIES NEVER DREAM" PAGE 1 2 3 4 5
MARTHA DAVIS IMAGES, PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
DOROTHY DANDRIDGE IMAGES, PAGE 1 2 3
DINAH WASHINGTON IMAGES, PAGE 1 2 3
VANITA SMYTHE IMAGES, page 1 2 3 4 5 6
RUTH BROWN IMAGES, PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
LENA HORNE "AIN'T IT THE TRUTH" 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
NINA SIMONE PICTURES 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30
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