In this September 1, 1959 essay in Commentary, James Baldwin writes of filmmaker Otto Preminger’s treatment of George Gershwin’s long revered opera Porgy and Bess, expertly weaving film criticism and social commentary, addressing the film’s shortcomings and the complexity of racism of the era — much (actually, most) of which still exists…
To view it on the Commentary website, click here. (Due to the unreliability of the link, the entire essay is available for reading below)
A scene from Porgy and Bess
Grandiose, foolish, and heavy with the stale perfume of self-congratulation, the Hollywood-Goldwyn-Preminger production of Porgy and Bess lumbered into the Warner theater shortly before the death of Billie Holiday. These two facts are not, of course, related in any concrete or visible way. Yet, at the time I was watching Bess refuse Sporting Life’s offer of “happy dust,” Billie was in the hospital. A day or so later, I learned that she was under arrest for possession of heroin and that the police were at her bedside. A number of people, some of whom I knew, were trying to have the dying woman accorded more humane treatment. “She’s sitting up today,” said one of the last people to see her alive, “and if they don’t bug her to death, she’ll never die.” Well, she is dead and I tend to concur with the woman who suggests that she was “bugged” to death. We are altogether too quick to disclaim responsibility for the fate which overtakes—so often—so many gifted, driven, and erratic artists. Nobody pushed them to their deaths, we like to say. They jumped. Of course there is always some truth to this, but the pressures of the brutally indifferent world cannot be dismissed so speedily. Moreover, though we disclaim all responsibility for the failure of an artist, we are happy to take his success or survival as a flattering comment on ourselves. In fact, Billie was produced and destroyed by the same society. It had not the faintest intention of producing her and it did not intend to destroy her; but it has managed to do both with the same bland lack of concern.
But I do not intend to talk about Billie Holiday, who has gained her immortality dearly and who is in no need of any remarks of mine. She would have made a splendid, if somewhat overwhelming Bess and, indeed, I should imagine that she was much closer to the original, whoever she was, of this portrait than anyone who has ever played or sung it. She was certainly much closer to it than Dorothy Dandridge, who plays the role, loosely speaking, in the present production. I am told that Miss Dandridge is a singer, though she seems never to have sung in the movies, but she is not an actress. Other people in Porgy and Bess are very gifted players indeed and under less depressing conditions have done admirable work; and there are others who give every indication of being able to act—if they could only find a director. In short, the saddest and most infuriating thing about the Hollywood production of Porgy and Bess is that Mr. Otto Preminger has a great many gifted people in front of his camera and not the remotest notion of what to do with any of them. The film cost upwards of six, or sixty, millions, or billions, of dollars but all that was needed for the present result was a little cardboard and a little condescension. As for the cardboard, consider the set, surely the most characterless in this opera’s entire history; and as for condescension, consider the costumes, most of which seem to have been left over from one of those traveling “Tom” shows. All of this, needless to say, in color, on a screen a block wide, and in stereophonic sound—which last means that one is not allowed to listen to the music but is beaten over the head with it. The camera takes an interest in the proceedings which can best be described as discreet: trundling lamely behind Diahann Carroll, for example, while she mauls someone’s heroically patient infant and waits for her man to be lost at sea. This event, like everything else in the movie, is so tastelessly overdone, so heavily telegraphed—rolling chords, dark sky, wind, ominous talk about hurricane bells, etc.—that there is really nothing left for the actors to do.
It is always necessary to suppose that the director knows more than his actors, knows, that is, how to get the best out of them, as individual performers and as an ensemble. This is a supposition which the facts do not always support. In the case of a white director called upon to direct a Negro cast, the supposition ceases—with very rare exceptions—to have any validity at all. The director cannot know anything about his company if he knows nothing about the life that produced them. We still live, alas, in a society mainly divided into black and white. Black people still do not, by and large, tell white people the truth and white people still do not want to hear it. By the time the cameras start rolling or rehearsals begin, the director is entirely at the mercy of his ignorance and of whatever system of theories or evasions he has evolved to cover his ignorance.
So is his company, which knows very well that, as he has no way of understanding the range of the Negro personality, he cannot possibly assess any given performer’s potential. They know, in short, that in this limited sense, as in so many others, they are going to be ill-used and they resign themselves to it with as much sardonic good nature as they can muster. They are working, at least, and they will be seen; this part may lead to a better part or even better parts for others. So the disaster proceeds and the miracle is that even in so thoroughgoing a disaster as Porgy and Bess a couple of very effective moments are achieved. This is partly by virtue of the material. For we have not even mentioned the probable quality of the script on which the Negro performer will be working or the reasons that this script finds itself in production.
I like Porgy and Bess but I do not think it is a great American opera. We do not have one yet. It is—or it was, until Mr. Preminger got his hands on it—an extraordinarily vivid, good-natured, and sometimes moving show. It is the story of a Negro beggar-cripple and his prostitute-addict sweetheart and it takes place in a Charleston ghetto; and it owes its vitality to the fact that DuBose Heyward loved the people he was writing about. (By which I do not mean to imply that he loved all Negroes; he was a far better man than that.)
Just the same, it is a white man’s vision of Negro life. This means that when it should be most concrete and searching it veers off into the melodramatic and the exotic. It seems to me that the author knew more about Bess than he understood and more about Porgy than he could face—than any of us, so far, can face. The idea of a Negro beggar-cripple who yet has enough force in his hands to kill a man and enough force in his body—to say nothing of his spirit—to possess a woman is surely an arresting one; as is the notion that this woman is, herself, because of her own uncontrollable drives, at the mercy of two whore masters, one of whom is a murderer and both of whom are dope addicts. And Heyward was not inventing all this but describing things that he had seen.
What has always been missing from George Gershwin’s opera is what the situation of Porgy and Bess says about the white world. It is because of this omission that Americans are so proud of the opera. It assuages their guilt about Negroes and it attacks none of their fantasies. Since Catfish Row is clearly such a charming place to live, there is no need for them to trouble their consciences about the fact that the people who live there are still not allowed to move anywhere else. Neither need they probe within their own lives to discover what the Negroes of Catfish Row really mean to them. But I am certainly not the first person to suggest that these Negroes seem to speak to them of a better life—better in the sense of being more honest, more open, and more free: in a word, more sexual. This is the cruelest fantasy of all, hard to forgive. It means that Negroes are penalized, and hideously, for what the general guilty imagination makes of them. This fantasy is at the bottom of almost all violence against Negroes; it is the reason they are not to be mixed in buses, houses, schools, jobs; they are to remain instead in Catfish Row, to have fish fries and make love. It is a fantasy which is tearing the nation to pieces and it is surely time we snapped out of it. For nobody in Catfish Row is having fish fries these days, and love is as rare and as difficult there as it has always been everywhere else. They struggle to pay the rent, the life insurance, the note due on the bedroom suite, the TV set, the refrigerator, the car. They worry about their children. They begin to hate each other, they turn to mysticism or to dope, they die there.
Obviously, neither Samuel Goldwyn nor Otto Preminger nor most of the audience for Porgy and Bess knows this, or wants to know it; and they would defend their production, I suppose, in the words of Mr. Preminger, as taking place in “a world which does not really exist.” This is an entirely illegitimate defense, and, in any case, the people in front of the camera keep reminding one, most forcefully, of a real Catfish Row, real agony, real despair, and real love. Many of them have been there, after all, and they know. Out of one Catfish Row or another came the murdered Bessie Smith and the dead Billie Holiday and virtually every Negro performer this country has produced. Until today, no one wants to hear the story, and the Negro performer is still in battle with the white man’s image of the Negro—which the white man clings to in order not to be forced to revise his image of himself. But in the Catfish Row where I was born, the truth, they said, will out. And certainly something comes “out” in Ruth Attaway’s miming of “My Man’s Gone Now,” some genuine depth is touched which has nothing to do with the vulgar production in which she is, for the rest of the time, quite thanklessly trapped.
No one can admire Sidney Poitier more than I do, but foe is entirely wrong for the role of Porgy. He does not succeed in making me believe that he is afraid of Crown, Crown’s wounds, or the police, or buzzards—or, indeed, of anything else; nor do I believe for a moment that he is unable to get up off that cart and walk. The very qualities which lend him his distinction—his intelligence, virility, and grace—operate against him here. Yet he does do something else which is utterly remarkable, especially against the eery sexual chill emanating from Miss Dandridge: he makes me believe that he loves Bess. Poitier is, in fact, one of the very few actors on the American screen who is not compelled to spend most of his cinema time proving that foe is not afraid of women. One is not compelled to watch him flexing his muscles and screwing up his courage in order to approach his mortal enemy and accomplish the unspeakable.
There is a great and instructive irony in this. That image one is compelled to hold of another person—in order, as I have said, to retain one’s image of oneself—may become that person’s trial, his cross, his death. It may or may not become his prison; but it inevitably becomes one’s own. People who thought of Bessie Smith as a coarse black woman, and who let her die, were far less free than Bessie, who had escaped all their definitions by becoming herself. This is still the only way to become a man or a woman—or an artist. Now Billie Holiday has escaped forever from managers, landlords, locked hotels, fear, poverty, illness, and the watchdogs of morality and the law. “I had a long, long way to go,” she used to sing. Well, she made it, all the way from Catfish Row, and no one has managed to define her yet. For the Negro is not a statistic or a problem or a fantasy: he is a person and it is simply not possible for one person to define another. Those who try soon find themselves trapped in their own definitions.
Whoever has found himself in a real Catfish Row knew that he had two choices, to live or to die, and some lived. If the day ever comes when the survivors of the place can be fooled into believing that the Hollywood cardboard even faintly resembles, or is intended to resemble, what it was like to be there, all our terrible and beautiful history will have gone for nothing and we will all be doomed to an unimaginable irreality. I prefer to believe that the day is coming when we will tell the truth about it—and ourselves. On that day, and not before that day, we can call ourselves free men.