Harlem Renaissance And The Cotton Club Film Studies Essay

Modified: 1st Jan 2015
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Cotton Club as an example of Jazz scene during the Harlem Renaissance in the movie The Cotton Club by Francis Ford Coppola

Even though the Harlem Renaissance ended almost 80 years ago and its timeline is almost the same as the prohibition, it still seems to have an incredible impact on American society and culture as such. What happened during those 13 years was a sort of revolution in every field of life in upper Manhattan. It would be almost impossible to name and enumerate every artist, musician, politician responsible for the Harlem Renaissance. What is the more important is the fact it was a moment in history when African American culture was able to express itself as separate from mainstream American culture of that time. Jazz became a powerful tool of defining Harlem identity; as Patrick Burke claims for African Americans “interest in jazz was mixed with a desire to think and act differently.” Harlem jazz musicians needed a place to practice and perform and the Cotton Club proved to play an important role in creating an atmosphere of artistic and intellectual growth during the jazz era, as depicted in the Cotton Club movie by Francis Ford Coppola.

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Francois Weil, the author of A History of New York, defines the Harlem Renaissance as the first African American movement in the modern history; the movement that influenced every aspect of cultural life, such as literature, music, art etc. Harlem in the 1920s was the place to be. It became what the Greenwich Village was in the downtown, mainly a place of cultural revival; an oasis to artist and intellectuals of all sorts. Harlem’s cultural revival at that time was called “The New Negro Renaissance,” a term that defined everything that was new, modern and exciting. The new movement was focused around black writers, like Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and jazz musicians, like Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway.

In the 1920s, what was called Harlem stretched from “130th to 145th street, from Madison Avenue to Eighth Avenue”. What became essential in Harlem Renaissance was the music; jazz, or rather ragtime as it should be called “was one of the first examples of interaction between white and black music.” Ragtime, as a genre was a combination of European and American influences. Its name comes from the “ragged” rhythm.

Due to the prosperity of the 1920s, New York became the new capital of entertainment. Prohibition did not stop New Yorkers’ craze for nightlife, however, they had to search for fun somewhere else, in the speakeasies- illegal bars serving alcohol, mostly located in the basements. One of the most famous speakeasies was Onyx Club, which was a venue for both musicians and New Yorkers in search of fun and adventure. Patrick Burke, the author of Oasis of Swing, explains that what attracted both musicians and audience to that kind of places was the image of “… jazz as an authentic, immediate form of personal expression”. Speakeasies were often located in private houses or in the basements of official clubs. There was a wide variety of speakeasies, ranging from the décor and the style to the clientele and the prices of alcohol. Most of them were located in the downtown.

When the parties were over on Times Square after midnight, the night had just begun in Harlem. For those, who were craving for more adventurous nightlife, Harlem was the Promised Land; it was home for famous clubs like, just to mention some, The Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn and Small Paradise.

The Cotton Club was the place where the greatest jazz musicians, like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway, performed. Interestingly enough, The Cotton Club, was a place for white customers only. African Americans were allowed on the stage as performers, dancers, musicians but not as guests of the club. As Watson claims, the Cotton Club “was the largest, featured the most extravagant shows, charged the highest prices, and most strictly enforced the color line”. Strangely enough, thanks to its policy, the club was seen as one of the best places for white New Yorkers to be immersed into black culture. The Cotton Club attracted white clientele in many ways, for example by serving fancy food, the prices were unreasonably high, the dancers were young and pretty; it all created the atmosphere of a place for elites. In the heart of Harlem, The Cotton Club was a venue run by white owners for white audience.

The Cotton Club was quite an extraordinary place where not only did white and black clash, but also other groups, like high and low classes, mob bosses and artist. Furthermore, the club was attracting its clients by the creating “the sense of forbidden adventure”. On top of that, illegal alcohol was just another factor that created the club’s myth.

The Cotton Club movie was directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1984. Coppola, who’s regarded as one of the most important American filmmakers, had been renowned for Apocalypse Now and The Godfather trilogy. Growing up in New York, although he was born in Detroit but his family moved to New York when he was a child, he actually made the city something more than just a background for the stories he depicted in his movies, the city itself became the vital part of his movies, almost like another main character, for example in the Godfather, where he depicted the life of Italian tenants living in New York City.

The Cotton Club was produced by his own studio, Zoetrope Studio, which meant for Coppola even greater financial responsibility in case the movie did not become an instant success. Not only did it fail in commercial sense, but also it did not meet the audience and the movie critics’ expectations.

The story is set in Harlem, New York City, primarily in 1928. The main character is white cornet player, Michael Dwyer called Dixie, starred by Richard Gere, who incidentally saves Dutch Schulz, starred by James Remar, life and since then Dixie’s life changes completely. This night is a turning point for Dixie; at the same club where he rescues Dutch, he meets Vera Cicero, starred by Diane Lane, a woman he completely falls in love with. In addition, Vera turns out to be Dutch’s mistress. Unfortunately, Dixie has no idea that the person he rescued is a mob boss, and this very fact makes Dixie mingled into the underground world of gangsters, bootleggers and speakeasies.

As the story develops, other characters appear on the screen, for example Williams’s brothers, two black tap dancers and this is the very first moment when the story moves into The Cotton Club. From now on, the lives of black and white characters are connected via the club itself. What strikes viewer’s attention most is segregation at the Cotton Club. The black performers are allowed to use only the backdoor, leaving the front door to white audience only. This fact is easily understood when it turns out that the owner of the club is white man, Owney Madden, starred by Bob Hoskins, who claims to be a businessman rather than a mobster and whose main concern is how much he can earn by selling illegal liquor at the club.

Dixie takes the screening test and gets engaged in the movie industry, which means moving to Hollywood and leaving New York and his beloved Vera. He takes his chance, seeing this as an opportunity to escape from his problems with Dutch. Out of a sudden, Dixie becomes a movie star. Meanwhile, the mob war in Harlem starts. To make things worse, the prices of stocks crash on Wall Street.

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The Great Depression does not seem to affect Vera Cicero, who left by Dixie, opens her own night club, Vera’s Club, for whites only on Broadway. Out of the sudden, Dixie comes back from Hollywood as a celebrity, finding his brother Vinnie guilty of killing innocent children in the street. The stock market crash in 1929 and the mob wars in 1930 are presented to build the dark and gloomy atmosphere of inevitable doom. In other words, the good careless days of jazz age are over and what is about to happen is like a harsh wake up after an all-night party.

Talking about black characters in the movie, they are presented as a sort of background for white main characters. There is another love affair in the movie, between black tap dancer, Dalbert, called Sandman, Williams, starred by ,Gregory Hines, and a singer, Lila, starred by Lonette McKee, whose tragedy is that she comes from a mixed background, of a white mother and black father, which makes her black for whites and white for blacks. Lila is a star at the Cotton Club, dreaming about career on a Broadway. Thanks to Vera Cicero, her dreams come true, as Lila is white enough to perform at the Vera’s Club.

The black jazz scene in the Cotton Club is depicted in two ways. First of all, there are historic names, such as Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway and fictional names, such as Williams Brothers. As far as historic names are concerned, the jazz scene in the Cotton Club can be divided into two phases: The Duke Ellington’s era, till 1930, and Cab Calloway’s era, since 1931. The times when Cab was the host at the Cotton Club mark the line of a different sort of entertainment; the show was more varied, there were more dancers, feathers, the pace was faster, because the audience was more varied. 1931 is important in the movie for two reasons; first because it is a date when the concerts are broadcast live from Cotton Club, second, it is a time when black audience is allowed into the club.

As far as fictional characters are concerned, the major black characters are two brothers, Clay and Dalbert Williams, who want to succeed at the Cotton Club as tap dancers. When they finally make it there, they start competing with each other and this rivalry leads to a split between them. The conflict is not an endless one and Williams brothers realize that what made them went separate ways is meaningless, and what really matters is the fact they are flesh and blood. The scene when sing and tap together to the “Crazy Rhythm” is one of the best scenes in the entire movie. In addition, the second best scene in the whole movie is a violent scene of Dutch’s murder is accompanied by Sandman’s tap dance in the background.

The evening show at the Cotton Club is depicted in the movie as a sort of a variety show. The stage in the shape of a horse hoof is located right in the center, surrounded by the customers’ tables. First, there female dancers enter the stage; young and attractive black girls chosen to attract mostly the male clientele. At the back of the stage there is a black jazz band accompanying the dancers. Secondly, there is a ballet performance or a singer solo accompanied by the orchestra. Next there is a tap dance, like Williams brothers, who dance synchronically to the rhythm of the music. The club is presented as a meeting spot for celebrities as well, for example when Dixie meets Gloria Swanson, the movie star. The show changes pace so that the audience can talk eat and enjoy it without paying attention all the time to what is happening on the stage.

The genre of this movie is a crime story combined with love story. The crime story part is most evident when at the beginning and the end of the movie when the Dutch’s opponents try to kill him and when Dixie’s brother, who became a gangster, incidentally shots kids on the street. The love story part is the dangerous, erotic and highly emotional relationship between Vera Cicero and Dixie Dwyer, the best example is the passionate tango scene where Vera slaps Dixie, who slaps her back. Their romance has to be a secret; otherwise they would get killed by Dutch. This tension leads to the inevitable conflict between Dutch and Dixie, which is the climax of the story, hence the secret about the love affair is revealed.

The Cotton Club movie’s strength lies in meticulous preparation to recreate the atmosphere of jazz age; as a matter of fact, the interior design and art deco details are impressive and take the viewers back to the famous club in the late 1920s.However, the movie has some flaws. First of all, it is not a “tribute” to black Harlem artists who were responsible for a cultural revival of that time. As Johnson points out, the movie of that title should be focused on “indomitability of segregated black artists who were able to lose themselves in ecstasies of escapist jazz songs and dance.” Secondly, the movie proves to be a crime story rather than a musical. Thirdly, black artists are displayed as minor characters, whereas all the glory and attention go to the white protagonists, especially white jazz musician Dixie Dwyer and femme fatale Vera Cicero.

The Cotton Club as an example of a nightclub was responsible for cultural revival in Harlem. Even though being responsible for segregation in Harlem, the club proved to be the place where many talented artists could perform and become famous overnight. It was the ultimate place where white audience could become familiar with Afro-American culture, for example by listening to Duke Ellington’s orchestra play jazz in the club. Furthermore, The Cotton Club was more than a jazz club; it was a scene for tap dancers, performers, singers, and other artists to show broader audience their work. In this way, The Cotton Club might be called the meeting place of white New Yorkers and African-American Harlem residents.

The Great Depression brought about the end of phenomena called the Harlem Renaissance. The majority of clubs were closed; significant artists abandoned Harlem and moved to other states or headed for Europe. The great cultural revival was over. In addition, the end of Harlem Renaissance is marked with the end of prohibition. The nightlife lost its seductive glamour; the speakeasies ceased to be the meeting spots. Stock market crash had a bigger impact on Harlem than anyone would expect; everything seemed to be falling apart. The Cotton Club and Connie’s In were open during the great depression. What changed was the number of white clients increasing. The repeal of prohibition seemed to have more impact on Harlem’ nightlife than the depression itself.


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