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Carmen Jones (1954)

Dorothy Dandridge blazed trails for actresses of color with a deeply felt performance that made her the first Black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. The role of an independent, assertive woman of color was so daring in 1950s America that she almost backed out of the film before production started. Only reassurances from producer-director Otto Preminger kept her on board for what would be, in the words of film historian Donald Bogle, “one of the great movie pleasures of the decade.”

In this adaptation of Bizet’s opera, Carmen is a wartime worker who seduces the soldier (Harry Belafonte) charged with taking her into police custody for fighting on the job. After he lets her escape, she tries to wait patiently for him to be released from the brig. But she’s too restless, and too independent, and before long succumbs to the lure of the big city and a championship boxer who promises her all the excitement she wants out of life. Dandridge’s role was revolutionary in its depiction of a self-determined Black woman who refuses to have her life choices dictated to her by anybody.

Preminger was known for breaking barriers. After seeing Carmen Jones on Broadway, he tried to produce a film version but was met with resistance from Hollywood until 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck offered to finance it, a surprise since the two had often clashed while Preminger was under contract to the studio. The film was a gamble, as no other all-Black musical, including Fox’s Stormy Weather (1943), had been a hit—mainly because of limitations on where such films could play in Southern states. Things were loosening a bit by the ‘50s, however, and thanks largely to Dandridge’s acclaimed performance, Carmen Jones became a major hit, earning back more than ten times its budget.

d. Otto Preminger, 105 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

This screening to be preceded by the presentation of the THE ROBERT OSBORNE AWARD to DONALD BOGLE.