Baldwin argues that the film Carmen Jones revolves around a parallel between “an amoral gypsy and an amoral Negro woman”; at the same time, it denies the charge that black people are amoral by making the black characters in the film seem white. The film is an adaptation of the 19th-century French opera Carmen with an all-black cast. Baldwin denounces the music in the film as “bald” and “badly sung,” and argues that the lyrics are crude and vulgar in a way that is not characteristic of black people. He praises the performance of Pearl Bailey, who seems to convey a sense of disdain at the film itself. He argues that Dorothy Dandridge, who plays Carmen, looks silly next to the far more genuine Bailey. Baldwin also criticizes the speech in the film, which has been drained of the charm and authenticity of real black American speech. The characters themselves seem whitewashed to appear “clean” and “modern.”
Like the two novels Baldwin has critiqued thus far, “Carmen Jones” purports to be racially progressive—it features an all-black cast and ostensibly denies the association of black people with immorality. However, as with the novels, this appearance is deceptive. In this passage, Baldwin makes clear that his ethical objection to the film is inextricable from his aesthetic critique. The film’s look and sound are offensive not only on an aesthetic level, but also because of how they misrepresent black people. Baldwin emphasizes that the film is at fault for obscuring the beauty of blackness.
Baldwin contends that the film’s flaws are the product of Hollywood’s condescending attitude toward black people. The film does not represent the reality of black life, and it subtly exhibits disdain for lower-class black people, revealed in the reluctance with which the actors pronounce “the” as “de.” Baldwin notes the fact that most of the actors are light-skinned, with the exception of Bailey (who plays a “floozie”) and a few other actors who play immoral characters. The movie rids itself of all signs of “excitement and violence,” as well as sexuality. Moments that are supposed to be erotic are instead “infantile,” “sterile,” and “distressing.” Baldwin points out that while Dandridge is dressed in revealing outfits, the male lead, Harry Belafonte, is notably desexualized, suggesting that black male sexuality is still considered too threatening to be represented. Carmen Jones remains important not because of what it conveys about black people, but rather what it conveys about white Americans. “Ciphers” like the characters in the film do not exist in real life. The reality that the film does represent is the “empty” and “disturbed” nature of the white psyche.
Here Baldwin shows that having a black cast alone is not an inoculation against racism. He outlines several dynamics at play in the film that speak to the complexity and difficulty of African-American experience. For example, the fact that most actors are light-skinned (and that the few darker-skinned actors play immoral characters) is an example of colorism, meaning the privileging of light skin and the prejudice against dark skin. Colorism is created by (and closely related to) racism, but is nonetheless a distinct phenomenon. Meanwhile, the palpable resistance to representing Harry Belafonte’s sexuality is indicative of white people’s sexual anxieties (and fantasies) about black men. Once again, these anxieties provide far more information about white people themselves than they do about black people.