Starring-Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte
Scott’s Review #736
Reviewed April 3, 2018
Quite taboo at the time of release (1954) because it featured an all-black cast with not a single white cast member, Carmen Jones is to be celebrated for its contribution to film history for this groundbreaking feat alone. Directed by Otto Preminger (who ironically is caucasian), the film features legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge in a Marilyn Monroe style performance worthy of the stars talents. The film is a musical with inevitable tragedy at the conclusion.
The 1954 feature is based on a 1943 stage production of the same name, which in turn is based on the music of the famous 1875 Georges Bizet production of Carmen. These facets add to the richness of the film as it is layered in good history, and the well-known tragic elements make the conclusion of unsurprising.
Brazen and beautiful, Carmen is a seductress who works in a parachute factory in North Carolina during World War II. After trading fists with a co-worker, Carmen is jailed and assigned handsome Corporal Joe (Harry Belafonte) to escort her to the authorities. While Carmen is not shy about setting her sights on the young man, his fiancee, virginal Cindy Lou, fumes with anger and schemes to keep her man. This results in a triangle, of sorts, as Carmen and Joe eventually fall madly in love, leaving poor Cindy Lou by the wayside, but their love faces hurdles.
The rather lighthearted first portion of the film, with coquettish humor mixed in, is offset by a much darker path the film then takes. As Carmen and Joe finally profess their love and share a night of passion, she leaves him in the middle of the night, unable to endure prison time. This results in Joe actually being imprisoned as the couple ultimately cannot stay away from one another despite repeated obstacles to their happiness. An additional character, a boxer named Husky, with designs on Carmen, is introduced, complicating matters.
In sad form, much like the opera Carmen, the final scene is both devastating and startling, as Joe treads down a dark and gloomy path of destruction. The character of Joe is nuanced- at first a “nice guy”, the character is an example in complexity, and what a man will do for love. The viewer is left to wonder what will become of Joe and how he could simply throw his life away performing an act in the heat of passion.
For 1954, what a profound and wonderful role for a female, let alone a black female. Typically cast in roles such as maids, waitresses, or even less glamorous parts, how wonderful for Dandridge to capture a challenging role of this caliber. As she sinks her teeth into the meaty and flirtatious Carmen, she is a vixen all the way. Her pizzazz, her flare, and her singing and dancing performances made Dandridge a star and forever known as a groundbreaking talent.
Enough cannot be said of the great importance of the casting of all black actors in Carmen Jones. Monumental, of course given the time of the film, the result is a film of importance to the black culture, showing that no longer did they need to only appear in “white films” as supporting players, but could carry a film on their own. How profound and remarkable this was!
My only criticism of the film is undoubtedly a result of the progress made for both black actors and the way black characters are written- though there is still plenty of more work to do. At times feeling a shade on the dated side (in present times plenty of great roles for black actors) with a slight grainy look to the filming, some of the acting from the supporting characters is also not the strongest, but nonetheless liberties must be taken as Carmen Jones is a historical film.
Thanks to the genius and the funding of Preminger, who needed to produce the film independently due to lack of interest, the results are a film that has gone down in history as being worthy, edgy, and open-minded. Wisely casting talented stars with great pipes, the film is a solid success.