Carmen Jones is undeniably an important film in the depiction of African-Americans on-screen, it was the first mainstream film to have an all-black cast after all. However from the first moment to the last you can’t help my think how far we have come in the 60+ years since its initial release. Harry Belafonte even confesses in the supplementary talk even though he always tried to pick roles that showed the African-American community in a good light, it didn’t always pan out.
The film is a musical which is a African-American retelling of Carmen which was initially a novel by Prosper Mérimée and later blame the famous opera. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the songs but without his frequent collaborator Richard Rodgers. The film was directed by Otto Preminger who is best known for his film noirs and hard-hitting dramas which broke taboos in the ’50s and ’60s which is partly where the film’s problems stem from.
One of the film’s biggest problems stems from the horrible over dubbing for the musical numbers throughout the film. Harry Belafonte who has one of the great voices of the 20th Century is overdubbed which is a criminal offensive if there ever was one. Supposedly he couldn’t hit the right operatic range but I’m sure Belafonte would’ve been fine with a little bit of training.
The film’s Carmen is played by Dorothy Dandridge who like Belafonte was a singer but in a more traditional jazz cabaret style. Belafonte was the man who is completely responsible for bringing Calypso to the US and also he mixed it up with the Socially aware American folk music of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly he also adored. Dandridge wasn’t Preminger’s first pick but after watching her in Bright Road (which also featured Belafonte) he was convinced she could pull off seductive sex appeal he needed for the role. It was a star making role and she got hooked up with Preminger but sadly her career started a long decline which would end with her somewhat mysterious death in 1965.
Carmen Jones probably shouldn’t have been a musical in the first place. The songs never gel with the on-screen action which is kind of the first rule when it comes to making musicals. It probably would’ve been much more artistically successful if Preminger actually made it into a noir because it ends in tragedy and Carmen if anything is basically a femme fatale. However as it stands now it’s an interesting insight into how race and sexuality was once portrayed on-screen which is in some ways more sensual but often just seems like a relic from the past.
BFI’s disc is headlined by an excellent Guardian lecture with Harry Belafonte around the time of the release of Robert Altman’s Kansas City. It runs a little over an hour and he talks about Carmen Jones, the many other films he appeared in, his music and of course his political activism which was radical at the time and to some is still radical today. He recently endorsed Bernie Sanders for president during the primaries. Karen Alexander does a short but insightful appreciation of the film where she talks about its then radical approach to race and sexuality. Adrian Martin supplies a commentary track and the usual trailers, stills/poster gallery and of course a booklet round the package up.