The fact that Dorothy Dandridge won an Academy Award for playing the iconic character Carmen Jones is even more remarkable when you hear scholar Donald Bogle describe just how different the actress herself was from the character. At a screening of the classic film of the same name starring Dandridge and Harry Belafonte last Sunday, NYU and University of Pennsylvania professor, and author of six books about Blacks in Hollywood, Donald Bogle talked about the jarring contrast.
Film Forum recently screened Carmen Jones in honor of the 65th anniversary of its release, in addition to its historical and cultural significance. Bogle sat down to talk about the film with Film Forum’s Repertory Director Bruce Goldstein afterward then signed copies of his new book, Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers.
Commissioned by Turner Classic Movies, Hollywood Black brings TV and movie fans into the new millennium, covering movies such as Black Panther and Get Out and talents like Michael B. Jordan, Ava DuVernay and Chadwick Boseman.
For decades, Bogle has been the foremost scholar on the history of Blacks in film and television. His Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes, and Bucks was a watershed, documenting the ways in which race plays a role in Hollywood casting. At the screening the seventy-four year-old recalled watching films as a child, where Black characters had very two-dimensional parts on-screen. “I always wondered when a black actor left the scene. When Bojangles left Shirley Temple or Hattie McDaniel left Vivian Leigh in Gone With The Wind. I said, ‘Well, where do they go?’”
Carmen Jones was the first film with an all Black cast that Bogle saw. “I was dazzled by Dorothy Dandridge. I thought she was compelling.”
Carmen Jones was the first time that Diahann Carroll was on screen. It also featured cultural icons such as Pearl Bailey and Max Roach. Legendary dancers Alvin Ailey, Carmen DeLavallade, and Archie Savage appeared in one of its sequences. Of that sequence Bogle commented, “It’s almost like the screen can’t quite hold this energy and Otto Preminger went with it and just let that energy, that talent, take over the screen. I was dazzled by that!”
Bogle, whose first job was for the director of Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger, also interviewed him when he was writing his biography of Dandridge. Bogle mused, “It’s interesting how Otto Preminger filmed her. He picked up on her feelings of detachment and of being alone. I always thought she was like Carmen Jones; very raunchy, extroverted. She wasn’t that at all. She was uncomfortable playing that part.”
Ironically, Dandridge went on to win an Oscar for Carmen Jones; the first Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. It would be sixty-five years before another Black woman, Halle Berry, would do the same.
Not only was Carmen Jones the first all Black cast film Bogle saw, it remained one of the most significant to him. The on-screen pairing of Belafonte and Dandridge was a strong reason. The two appeared in three movies together, though not always as love interests. Bogle expressed his disappointment at that with regard to the interracial themed drama Island In The Sun. “They are a great couple. They are an absolutely beautiful couple. I mean, these are gods and goddesses Dorothy and Belafonte; very definitely!”
Asked by Goldstein if he thought anyone else could have played the role, Bogle was adamant that no one else could. He shared that Preminger had offered Diahann Carroll the role but she turned it down. “These aren’t her words but she was thinking, ‘No way’. She was so young. And she probably couldn’t have done it but she realized that.”
Bogle pointed out similarities between Carmen Jones and Spike Lee’s Nola Darling of She’s Gotta Have It, released thirty-two years later. “There are similarities between these women. A woman living out her own desires and sense of fulfillment.”
Bogle and Goldstein also spoke to how revolutionary it was that Carmen Jones portrayed Black love on the screen in 1954. Goldstein commented, “This is really Preminger breaking taboos.“ Bogle nodded, replying, “Yes, he always did that.” Bogle went on to address how audiences received the depiction. “Black audiences gravitated to the idea of Black love and still do. This great Black couple.”
The late John Singleton, who in the past expressed his appreciation for Bogle’s work and had been interviewed by the famed scholar, wrote the foreword for Hollywood Black not long before he passed away. Bogle pointed out Singleton could spot untapped talent even as a college student. “During the summers he would do internships. He worked on the Arsenio Hall Show and he met Ice Cube and Laurence Fishburne. He he formed friendships with them. It’s really interesting that he was able to do that. And then when he went to do his first film, he put them both in it.”
Singleton wanted to write about Gordon Parks in the foreword. Recalled Bogle, “He wanted to say a lot about Gordon Parks. It was very touching because he knew Gordon and Gordon was an idol for him. I said to him, John we just don’t have room. Why don’t you save that for your autobiography and of course…” His voice then trails off.