The Paris Blues: Cinematic Representations of Black Musicians in Paris

An Analysis of Representations of Black Musicians in Paris through Hollywood and French Cinema

Introductory Note (from Professor Rhae Lynn Barnes):

This interactive film analysis focused on Paris Blues (film embedded below) was created by Lucas Bohlinger, an undergraduate in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Paris Blues is an American feature-length film directed by Martin Ritt on location in Paris, France, during 1961 staring Sidney Poitier (playing Eddie Cook, an African American expatriate jazz saxophonist), Paul Newman (playing Ram Bowen, a white American trombone player), and two American tourists the musicians fall in love with—one is a young white woman and her friend is an African American woman—played by Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll. International jazz superstar Louis Armstrong also guest stars and performs on film. American jazz pianist Duke Ellington was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music and Scoring of a Musical Picture for his soundtrack, released on the United Artists label the same year.

Paris Blues, released one year after the Woolworth’s Lunch counter Boycotts in the American Civil Rights Movement, uses transatlantic jazz music as a way to explore international race relations, ideas of American citizenship, rights, cultural exchange, and the globalization of American popular culture in a moment when the United States government, especially the State Department, used jazz and its performers like Armstrong to argue for an American cultural superiority during the growing Cold War. While Paris embraced jazz and African American performers like Josephine Baker, Eugene Bullard, and James Reese Europe after War War I, this quiet film complicates the simplistic cultural narrative that a more racially tolerant Paris recognized the musical genius of jazz before the United States by exploring the complex racial nuance that formed on the ground in Paris in the mid-twentieth century through interracial friendships, working relationships, and love. Enjoy Lucas Bohlinger’s film and text below.

 

Lucas Bohlinger on Paris Blues:

Sidney Poitier’s image, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963

“Here nobody says Eddie Cook, Negro musician. They say Eddie Cook, musician. Period. And that’s all I wanna be!” This line, uttered by Sidney Poitier in Paris Blues (1961), encapsulates the attitudes of most African-American musicians who performed in Paris during the twentieth century. And yet, everything else in the film seems to contrast Poitier’s statement. In order to understand this dichotomy, I created this video essay analyzing Paris Blues in the context of four other feature films which similarly wrestle the themes of race and representation in Paris: Zouzou (1934), Princesse Tam Tam (1935), Diva (1981), and ‘Round Midnight (1986).

Why Paris Blues

Paris Blues is the centerpiece of my analysis because of the forcefulness in the tropes, motifs, and stereotypes which permeate and plague this oddly specific sub-genre. The film’s willingness to feature both black romance and black discourse makes Paris Blues stand out as a milestone in global Civil Rights cinema. It just as quickly, however, conceals these important interjections behind white-savior narratives, infantile sexuality, and commercial aspirations.

The film’s director, Martin Ritt, is known for his ability to use complex ideas and intellectual texts as vehicles for telling a more common story. Whether these inspirations come from Akira Kurosawa, William Faulkner, or Jack Johnson, Ritt has continually supplanted controversial characters with superstar heroes in order to make these difficult discussions more palatable. In Paris Blues, Ritt used Harold Flender’s 1957 novel of the same name as his inspiration. However, while the novel tells the singular story of one black expatriate jazz musician making it in Paris as the protagonist, Ritt’s script pushes this character to a supporting role, favoring a white lead to be played by his frequent-collaborator, Paul Newman.

MGM1958 photo of actor Paul Newman.

A Controversial Lead

While Newman gained a reputation beyond his cinematic performances as a philanthropist, activist, (and salad dressing connoisseur!), Newman’s character overpowers the black narrative threads in this film about an important moment for black Americans in Paris. While Poitier’s character Eddie Cook focuses on social concerns, Newman’s character is painted as entirely devoted to Jazz. The irony of this white appropriation of the historically black art form is only furthered by the film’s inclusion of Louis Armstrong, playing himself.

Louis Armstrong

While both Poitier and Newman have their own complicated relationship to Civil Rights, Armstrong’s biography is essential to understanding Paris Blues, and this sub-genre as a whole. Joe Morani, a clarinet player for Armstrong’s band described Louis’ complex relationship with Civil Rights in an interview for NPR, saying, “Most [younger] blacks hated Louis Armstrong. The older ones didn’t. The younger ones, no. He was old Uncle Tom, handkerchief head.”

World-Telegram staff photographerLouis Armstrong, 1953.

Because Armstrong’s character serves largely to validate Newman’s appropriation of Jazz, many critics have pointed to his “Uncle Tom” reputation as a major misstep in the film’s attempted arguments about race, Jazz, and Paris. However, it is also essential to analyze Armstrong’s role in Civil Rights with further skepticism. Without even considering the moments in which he voiced his opinion about Alabama schools to President Eisenhower, or participated in in the Jazz Ambassador program to combat Cold War propaganda, Armstrong still stands out for his ability to express an independent black identity. In the same NPR article, journalist Roy Hurst references the power of Armstrong’s unmistakably unique trumpet sound, and how important that unique sound was for black Americans.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we must ask: Do these same counterarguments about individually (whether expressed through dialogue or music) appear in this subgenre regarding the African-American music scene in Paris?

From Josephine Baker’s colonial pastiche in Zouzou, to Poitier and Diahann Carroll’s restrained relationship in Paris Blues, through Dexter Gordon’s real-life portrayal of expatriate jazzmen in ‘Round Midnight, this video essay hopes to answer that question.


Bibliography

  • Diva. Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Performed by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  • Gabbard, Krin. “Signifyin(g) the Phallus: “Mo’ Better Blues” and Representations of the Jazz Trumpet.” Cinema Journal 32, no. 1 (1992): 43-62. doi:10.2307/1225861.
  • Guterl, Matthew Pratt. “Josephine Baker’s Colonial Pastiche.” Black Camera 1, no. 2 (2010): 25-37. doi:10.2979/blc.2010.1.2.25.
  • Hodgens, R. M. Film Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1962): 71. doi:10.2307/1210639.
  • I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck. Performed by James Baldwin. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  • James, Carol Plyley. The French Review 56, no. 5 (1983): 782-83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/390942.
  • Johnson, Albert. “The Negro in American Films: Some Recent Works.” Film Quarterly 18, no. 4 (1965): 14-30. doi:10.2307/1210253.
  • Paris Blues. Directed by Martin Ritt. Performed by Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  • Princesse Tam-Tam. Directed by Edmond T. Gréville. Performed by Josephine Baker. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  • Reiff, Melanie. “Unexpected Activism: A Study of Louis Armstrong and Charles Mingus as Activists Using James Scott’s Theory of Public Versus Hidden Transcripts.” Summer Research55 (2010). Accessed June 7, 2018. https://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1054&context=summer_research.
  • ‘Round Midnight. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Performed by Dexter Gordon. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  • Thompson, Cliff. “Paris Blues, Visited.” The Iowa Review 26, no. 1 (1996): 167-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20154218.
  • Zouzou. Directed by Marc Allegret. Performed by Josephine Baker. Accessed June 7, 2018.

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