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Artist’s Choice Screenings: Carmen Jones

#AlbertaWhittle

"Carmen Jones, Poetic Justice and Young Soul Rebels are films which have intrigued me since childhood and continue to affect the language(s) I weave through my own practice. Each of these films defies cinematic expectations of race, gender and sexuality, deftly layering entanglements of love, desire, grief, trauma and recovery amidst political strife as worthy and multiple." Alberta Whittle


Directed by Otto Preminger, this lively, colourful updating of the Carmen story transplants the action to World War II-era America and, in basing itself on the 1943 Broadway musical of the same name, boasts an entirely black cast. While the musical was a principal influence, this is a film that is very aware of its sources; with music from the Bizet opera (probably the most famous version of the Carmen narrative) Preminger also worked closely from the original 1846 novella, giving the film a multi-textual approach in telling a well-worn story through a black perspective.

"a fascinating, multi-faceted watch"

Although Dorothy Dandridge made history in the role of Carmen by becoming the first African-American to be nominated for a leading role at the Academy Awards, Marilyn Horne, who controversially was white, dubbed her singing scenes. While Preminger was a socially minded director and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, many critics (including contemporaries) have also pointed out that by presenting a cast comprised of only black actors, this was in itself an act of segregation and ignored the realities of the black experience.

Much has been written about Carmen Jones’ influence and it occupies a unique position in the canon of film musicals; ambitiously liberal and with celebrated, passionate performances from Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, it is also indicative of 1950s Hollywood’s regressive attitudes towards race. Ultimately, it is a fascinating, multi-faceted watch that is simultaneously forward thinking and problematic.