I don’t know how I missed it, but this old movie from 1984 is fabulous, especially if you love 1930s music and watching Gregory Hines dance! Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a TV or go see films much in the 1980s. I was busy learning Chinese and getting degrees I would never use… But this film was so much fun for me yesterday!
For me, the most interesting aspect of this movie was the way it called attention to extreme early racism in Harlem and how those with power drew the line between black and white. Opened in 1923, the Cotton Club on 142nd St & Lenox Ave in the heart of Harlem, was operated by white gangster Owney Madden. Madden used the Cotton Club as an outlet to sell his “#1 Beer” to the prohibition crowd.
The Club was decorated with the idea of creating a “stylish plantation environment” for its entirely white clientele. As with many New York City clubs of the time period, that meant the upper class of the city. The Cotton Club at first excluded all but white patrons although the entertainers and most of staff were African American. Dancers at the Cotton Club were held to strict standards; they had to be at least 5’6” tall, light skinned with only a slight tan, and under twenty-one years of age.
The oppressive segregation of the Cotton Club was reinforced by its depiction of the African American employees as exotic savages or plantation residents and the music was often orchestrated to bring to mind a jungle atmosphere. By transforming the club into this plantation atmosphere and bringing in celebrities, Owney Madden created a demand for the Cotton Club while also helping to perpetuate widely held negative stereotypes about African Americans.
This film also got a lot of relatively new actors noticed like Bob Hoskins, Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, and Tom Waits(!) to name a few. I loved the music, the dancing, and the story, plus I learned quite a bit about how racism worked in Harlem in the 1930s!
A personal note: I have been noticing the age difference between the romantic lead actors in older movies lately. In this case the age difference between Richard Gere and Diane Lane is 16 years! Talk about robbing the cradle…