John Corbino’s 1944 painting Carmen Jones, in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, depicts the Broadway musical-turned-Hollywood-hit of the same title. Corbino’s expressionist, abstracted rendering portrays the dynamism, energy, and movement of the live performance. Yet even as Carmen Jones was marketed as a celebration of African American life and culture, the painting and the musical fail to address the discrimination African Americans faced at home and abroad during World War II.
The Broadway Story
The 1943 musical Carmen Jones was the creation of famed lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, who set his words to George Bizet’s original music for the 1875 opera Carmen. Based on the 1846 novella by Prosper Mérimée and set in Seville, Carmen is the story of a gypsy woman and cigarette factory worker who seduces Don José, a Spanish soldier, and leads him into a life of lawlessness. Ultimately, Carmen finds new romance with a prize-winning bullfighter, leading to her death at the hands of the scorned and jealous Don José.
In Hammerstein’s version, played by an all-African American cast and set during World War II, Carmen Jones is a parachute factory worker who resides on a military base in North Carolina. Jones seduces Joe, an engaged U.S. Corporal Officer with a bright future in the Air Corps. Their romance leads Joe to desert the army and the two travel to Chicago to escape the military police. After settling into a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side, Carmen looks for work in the bustling nightlife industry and encounters the prize-winning boxer Husky Miller. Joe, who has been cooped up in the apartment to avoid the military police, becomes envious of Carmen’s comings and goings. The tension comes to a head when Joe finds Carmen and Miller together at a boxing match, and after a confrontation with Carmen, strangles her to death.
“Send Them Along, and Win That War”
Carmen Jones premiered on December 2, 1943, during a formative time in American history. During World War II, African American and white Southerners migrated to urban industrial centers in search of work — much as Carmen Jones and Joe move to Chicago from North Carolina — generating tensions over available resources. As the war effort gathered momentum, the realities of African American life in cities, including housing shortages and job discrimination, stood in stark contrast to the democratic ideologies being touted by the U.S. government. Just months after Carmen Jones premiered, a number of uprisings against systematic inequalities shook major cities in the United States, including in Detroit, Harlem, and Los Angeles.
Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, issued in 1941, technically prohibited racial discrimination in the prosperous national defense industry, discrimination continued, as did segregation within the United States military. Like the fictional Carmen Jones, many young African American women sought well-paid work that was tied to the war effort. However, despite Executive Order 8802, many industrial plants refused to hire African American women. Others gave them the either the most menial or the most dangerous positions. Once on the job, African American women faced discrimination from supervisors as well as those who worked alongside them.
During World War II, African Americans began to promote a “Double Victory Campaign” that entailed fighting white supremacy both abroad and at home. This campaign suggested a connection between the ideologies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party and the history of Slave Codes and Jim Crow laws in the United States. The “Double V” campaign helped inspire the Civil Rights Movement after the war ended.
A Seat at the Oscars
Eleven years after the show premiered on Broadway, Carmen Jones debuted on the silver screen. During the intervening eleven years, World War II had ended in an allied victory, the entirety of the Korean War had take place, and the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision had captured national attention by declaring segregation unconstitutional. In the 1954 film, Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte played the leads of Carmen and Joe. As a film, Carmen Jones launched the careers of both Dandridge and Belafonte and earned both critical acclaim and box-office success. In fact, Dandridge was the first African American woman nominated for an Oscar in a lead role.
“The Dark is Light Enough”
Although the film version of Carmen Jones was a hit, it was not without critics. In Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin included an essay titled “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” a critique of the film. Baldwin outlined the ways in which the white producers, writers, and director portrayed a fantasy version of African American life that did not reflect the realities. One of the central critiques made by both Baldwin and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was that because the cast was all black, the realities of racial tension, segregation, and civil rights activism were not depicted accurately. Baldwin notes that the absence of white actors effectively “seals off the action, as it were, in a vacuum in which the spectacle of color is divested from its danger.” Baldwin also balked at the whitewashing of African American culture, and particularly the way that the characters used regional Southern diction, which came across as forced, sterile, and disconnected from its origins. As Baldwin put it, “… Negro speech is parodied out of its charm and liberalized, if one may so put it, out of its force and precision.” Baldwin’s layered critique no doubt reached a much smaller audience than the film itself, but his essay on Carmen Jones has led to more recent scholarship on the 1954 film.
Carmen Jones continues to have relevance in current scholarship on race because both the Broadway musical and the Hollywood film emerged during pivotal moments in United States history. The musical itself captured the story of African American working women during wartime, while James Baldwin’s contemporary critique elevated the discourse on the stark differences between pop culture portrayals and the realities of African American life.
– June Titus, Center for Women’s History