Ethel Waters as Petunia Jackson gives an outstanding performance in Cabin in the Sky (1943, dir. Vincent Minnelli). Her singing is wonderful, and she is the entertaining heart of the film. There are other good performances too, especially by Eddie Anderson as Petunia’s errant husband Little Joe. Duke Ellington with his orchestra appears briefly. Louis Armstrong makes a valiant try as a demon, though he never plays his trumpet. Lena Horne makes her first major film appearance.
Cabin in the Sky gave these performers a welcome opportunity to showcase their talents. On film in the 1930s and 1940s, at least, African Americans had few such opportunities. Ethel Waters herself probably had the most significant film career of everyone who appeared in this film, with later appearances in Pinky and A Member of the Wedding.
When Little Joe is killed in a bar by a man whom he owes money, his own begging and his wife’s prayers convince the Lord to give him a final chance. Rather than consignment to hell, he has six months on earth to mend his ways. He is not a bad man, his wife Petunia explains, just a weak one who has sinned many times. His weaknesses are gambling and a young woman named Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). Petunia and Little Joe love each other, and she is constantly overlooking and forgiving his failings. In the broad strokes of what almost seems to be a pageant play, the film shows us how Little Joe struggles to convince the Lord, his wife, and the Devil that he is a reformed man.
The trouble is that the film shows African American life purely from a white director’s point of view. The black people in this film are black people as stereotypes, black people as white filmmakers want to see them—simple, fun-loving, religious, superstitious, easily tempted, fond of ceremony and overdressing. In this regard A Cabin in the Sky carries forward from such all-black films as Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1930) and Green Pastures (1940), and it doesn’t significantly advance the role of African Americans in mainstream films. It doesn’t invite us to view its characters in the context of 20th-century American society, nor does it make any reference to the laws, racism, and constraints that oppressed African Americans in the early 1940s--there is a nary a white person in the whole story. Worse still, the story turns out to be just a nightmare in Little Joe’s fevered imagination.
Three actors in this film—Eddie Anderson, Butterfly McQueen, and Oscar Polk--had roles as slaves in the Gone with the Wind (1938). What one can say for Cabin in the Sky is that it allows these actors, and the others, to be viewed as characters living independently from the white world. The film shows respect for its characters, even as it makes fun of their superstitions. They have their own lives, the film does not treat them with outright derision, the stereotypes are mostly muted (no one, for example, plays the ingratiating and shuffling black clown in the style of Stepin Fetchit in the Will Rogers film Judge Priest, 1934). But the underlying attitudes about black people are evident enough.
Viewed from the 2013 perspective, Cabin in the Sky is offensively anachronistic and patronizing.