Produced and directed by Otto Preminger in 1954, Carmen Jones was based on a 1943 Broadway musical that in turn was based on the Bizet opera Carmen. The cast is entirely African American; the setting has been moved to the United States and set during World War II, in or near an army training base and in Chicago. The first two-thirds of the film appear to take place in the American South, although the evidence for this is faint and subtle—one character says he does not want to return to working on a farm after the war, the setting is generally rural, with a few small towns. And the film is about African Americans—or at least it features an entirely African American cast.
One has to question why it was necessary to update Carmen. The film follows the plot of the opera loosely but relatively faithfully. The opera's matador becomes a prizefighter in the film. The military officer becomes a corporal in the army who has just been accepted to flight training school. Carmen in the film is much like Carmen from the opera—passionate, headstrong, flinging men this way and that once she is done with them. She works in a parachute factory rather than a tobacco warehouse. And the military officer is as much a foolish victim in the film as in the opera.
The film exchanges the setting of Spain for the setting of African America. Instead of passionate, impetuous Spaniards, we have impetuous, passionate African Americans.
The film doesn't explore any theme that could be identified as "Southern" or as "racial" or as "African American." Rather it takes a Bizet opera and updates it with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The characters sing in a light African American dialect, but for the most part they could be singing the same songs that Shirley Jones sings in Oklahoma, or she could be singing them herself. That is, the performers bring nothing of themselves to the music, other than their talent.
The film was a genuine attempt to highlight African American talent—Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and others. It is a genuine attempt to celebrate and appreciate African American culture. But the film insists on accomplishing these admirable goals using definitions and conventions entirely imposed and defined by white American and European culture—the American musical, the European opera. Maybe part of the point is that music and opera are supposed to be universal languages through which anyone can express the universal emotions of love and jealousy and passion. Little that we associate with African American culture finds its way into the film—there is some wild dancing, some jazzy singing, but one senses that these are all permitted and defined and constrained by the white filmmakers.
World War II had a tremendous consequence for African Americans. Their role in the war provided support and justification for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s--how can you deny rights to people who fought and sacrificed in a national war effort. Joe himself, as we are told, has been accepted into flight school—a landmark achievement for an African American in World War II. Yet by showing how he throws away this opportunity by giving up everything to chase after Carmen, the film seems to argue that blacks are, after all, too unreliable and irresponsible to fly planes in the war effort. Since the Broadway play premiered in 1943, one can understand why it showed no awareness of the significance of World War II for African American citizens, but no such excuse can be made for the 1954 film. Evidence of what the war meant was already available and apparent, but the film exists in a social vacuum as far as such issues go.
By limiting the world of the film entirely to African Americans, so that whites or other ethnic categories play no role, Preminger avoids all the sticky and complicated issues of race. The civil rights movement was about to burst forth in America in 1954, the year of the Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education decision, and clearly much tension was in the air. Preminger avoids the tension by simply omitting any concern with relations between different races. His focus on a single group of people, allows him to appear to be taking sides with an oppressed group without really taking a stand. Thus he offends no significant portion of the audience and even receives praise for his liberal mindedness. During the 50s, such evasive stands of liberal broadmindedness were not uncommon in film.
The film certainly invokes its share of stereotypes and racial characteristics. Pearl Bailey sings at one point of tom-toms ("Beat Out dat Rhythm on a Drum"). Song lyrics are littered with "dese" and "dats." A woman speaks disdainfully of how a man smells. But the film's treatment of sexuality and moral license is a major way in which it makes racial assumptions. Are there any other Rogers and Hammerstein films in which a scene begins by showing a man in an under-shirt fastening his trousers—the clear statement here is that the man and a woman have just had sex—there's no doubt about it. In Chicago, Carmen and Joe share a one-room apartment in which the bed is the center of the room. Though they are not married, the clear implication is that the bed is the center of much activity. Dorothy Dandridge parades around in bra and underwear in one scene. Three women are enticed to accompany a group of men to Chicago in return for promises of diamonds, minks, and a good time. You wouldn't see such details in a predominantly white film, especially one with lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein. The assumption here is that African Americans are passionate, sexually free, and open folks who don't see moral compunctions as a hindrance to sexual expression. Perhaps Preminger thought that using an all African American cast would allow him to present Carmen as he really thought it should be produced and at the same time pay tribute to African American talents and culture. In retrospect, certainly from the vantage point of 53 years later, the decision to make this film seems to have been a bad one.
This is supposed to be the way of black people, right—sexual libertinism. Sex between whites was verboten on screen in the 1950s. A predominantly white audience would be offended by open sexuality among white actors on screen, but by black actors it is more acceptable because that is what white audiences and filmmakers expect of blacks.
Carmen Jones occupies the same territory as Porgy and Bess (1959), The Green Pastures (1936), and Cabin in the Sky (1943), which use all-black casts to celebrate (and satirize and ridicule) black culture without really seeking to explore or understand it. It's tempting to view these films as Margaret-Mead type anthropological explorations of primitive culture. In celebrating the free passions of African Americans in 1954, Carmen Jones is really trying to make its mostly white audience happy for their more upright whiteness.
In general the African Americans in the film provide a vehicle for updating a story of love and passion in a way that wouldn't have been possible for a film populated mainly by whites. I wonder how comfortable Dandridge and Belafonte and Bailey felt in these roles. For the most part the scenes and dancing are competent and entertaining but executed with little excitement or passion—an irony in a film based on an opera about love and passion.