Disintegrating the Musical

Black Performance and American Musical Film

Disintegrating the Musical

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 68 b&w photos, 5 figures Published: August 2002

Author: Arthur Knight

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Media Studies > Film

From the earliest sound films to the present, American cinema has represented African Americans as decidedly musical. Disintegrating the Musical tracks and analyzes this history of musical representations of African Americans, from blacks and whites in blackface to black-cast musicals to jazz shorts, from sorrow songs to show tunes to bebop and beyond.

Arthur Knight focuses on American film’s classic sound era, when Hollywood studios made eight all-black-cast musicals—a focus on Afro-America unparalleled in any other genre. It was during this same period that the first black film stars—Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge—emerged, not coincidentally, from the ranks of musical performers. That these films made so much of the connection between African Americans and musicality was somewhat ironic, Knight points out, because they did so in a form (song) and a genre (the musical) celebrating American social integration, community, and the marriage of opposites—even as the films themselves were segregated and played before even more strictly segregated audiences.

Disintegrating the Musical covers territory both familiar—Show Boat, Stormy Weather, Porgy and Bess—and obscure—musical films by pioneer black director Oscar Micheaux, Lena Horne’s first film The Duke Is Tops, specialty numbers tucked into better-known features, and lost classics like the short Jammin’ the Blues. It considers the social and cultural contexts from which these films arose and how African American critics and audiences responded to them. Finally, Disintegrating the Musical shows how this history connects with the present practices of contemporary musical films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Bamboozled.


“This complex book has been diligently researched through primary sources including contemporary Black journalism and criticism as well as the films themselves, and through a comprehensive reading of relevant secondary sources.” — Andrew Killick , Popular Music

"Disintegrating the Musical combines meticulous documentation with a balanced temporally and conceptually building argument. . . . Knight's book should be used as more than just an examination of a generic form, or of, indeed, particularly racial representations. Its importance lies in the way it takes up the challenge of Du Bois and demonstrates the influence of popular culture in civil society through careful documentation of historical and textual processes." — E. Sean Rintel , M/C Reviews

"[R]ich in content and frequently eloquent. . . . Knight's study should inspire other scholars to explore the significance of the films that guided and entertained African Americans through some very difficult and historic moments of the twentieth century." — William J. Mahar, Journal of American History

"At the end, [Knight] expresses the hope that he has made a convincing case that there never was such a thing as ‘just’ singing and dancing. Indeed he has, in a study that is richly informed and thoughtfully analytical. . . . Essential. All collections." — K.S. Nolley , Choice

"Knight’s book makes a valuable contribution to studies of the film musical, offering the first book-length study of black performance in both the Hollywood musical and the race film musicals of the 1930s. . . . Disintegrating the Musical charts new territory in studies of the film musical, and the project that Knight has undertaken here will hopefully lead to more work in this area." — Jodi Brooks , Screening the Past

“African American influence on American music is legendary, but not until Arthur Knight’s Disintegrating the Musical have African American contributions to the Hollywood musical been put in the spotlight. Finally, we have a first-rate book offering a new slant on everything from blackface and Paul Robeson to the film version of Porgy and Bess.” — Rick Altman, University of Iowa

“Knight’s fine book is compelling reading that takes black cinema scholarship into new unmapped issues and territories. Notable is Knight's thoroughly innovative and nuanced discussion of ‘blackface’ (and its ‘whiteface’ counterpoint) and how blacks deployed forms of ‘black blackface,’ to discover pain, pleasure and irony in its complexities. Importantly, Knight charts the power of black musical performance, illuminating the schizophrenic disjuncture between the pervasive influence of the black Jazz sound and the simultaneous erasure, segregation, or devaluation of the African American musician's visual presence in mainstream cinema. Disintegrating The Musical casts its arguments in bold, lucid strokes, standing out as a solid contribution to the fields of cinema and performance studies and Jazz scholarship.” — Ed Guerrero, New York University


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Price: $28.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Arthur Knight is Associate Professor of American Studies and English at the College of William & Mary. He is coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music, published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Introduction: Disintegrating the Musical

1. Wearing and Tearing the Mask: Blacks on and in Blackface, Live

2. “Fool Acts”: Cinematic Conjunctions of White Blackface and Black Performance

3. Indefinite Talks: Blacks in Blackface, Filmed

4. Black Folk Sold: Hollywood’s Black-Cast Musicals

5. “Aping” Hollywood: Deformation and Mastery in The Duke is Tops and Swing!

6. Jammin’ the Blues: The Sight of Jazz

Coda: Bamboozled?



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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2963-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2935-0
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