Judge Mike Pinsky thinks this performance-heavy documentary on hot jazz ain't misbehavin' enough for his tastes.
"We don't dance by the numbers on the floor."—Michelle Sprull, historian
One of the more sobering historical ironies of American history is the fact that the Harlem Renaissance would likely not have been quite so widespread if not for the patronage of wealthy whites. Just as many of the great works of the Italian Renaissance were backed by the money and prestige of the Catholic Church—or by wealthy families who thought that they needed to compete with the Church in a sort of "keeping up with the Pope Jones" social game—the 1920s saw a blossoming in black art in part due to white interest in collecting, perhaps colonizing, black culture. In other words, patrons of African American art in the 1920s were, in a word, patronizing: they subscribed to theories about primitivism (that is, African Americans were somehow more in touch with their "natural selves") that seemed more in line with 19th century romanticism than post-WWI reality. After all, what had the rationalism and technocracy of western culture gotten us by the 1920s, other than world war and urban decay?
But what was in it for the black artists, suddenly surrounded by an admiring white audience? Certainly money and recognition, and the artistic freedom that came from having a ready audience. But also an opportunity to redefine what passed to "black culture" in the minds of whites, rejecting the plantation stereotypes in favor of shaping what Alain Locke called the "New Negro." This "New Negro" was a product of the city: sophisticated, dapper, energetically hip. He shouted out the punchy meter of Langston Hughes, quoted the literate prose of W.E.B. Du Bois—and most of all, he knew that it all didn't mean a thing if it didn't have that swing.
"Swingin' Uptown: Renaissance in Harlem" (repackaged on this DVD as Harlem Renaissance) is a 41-minute documentary that will tell you almost nothing about the sociological underpinnings of the Harlem Renaissance (the previous two paragraphs you can thank me for later). Apart from a couple of references to the urban growth of Harlem during the period, and the fact that the period saw a shattering of the "shuckin' and jivin'" stereotypes that dominated white perceptions of black culture prior to the rise of jazz, you will hear little in-depth historical criticism. Although the doc focuses exclusively on jazz music (nothing about the other areas or artists of the Harlem Renaissance), there is no discussion of the content of jazz songwriting of the period. Sexuality and drug references in the song lyrics are never mentioned. The history behind the new music industry of the time (sheet music, in which race could be concealed, giving way to records and films, in which whites were forced to confront that their favorite music came from black artists) is ignored. There is not much biographical information, and the talking heads that appear every now and then keep their comments fairly superficial. Every song is cheerful and upbeat, but we never learn why this utopian vision of Harlem faded after only a generation.
What Harlem Renaissance the DVD does have going for it is red-hot music. Clips of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller—among others—are gathered from music shorts of the period and later television performances. No dates pin down when these performances are taking place, which some viewers may find misleading. For example, the doc prominently features later black artists like Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie without mentioning that they were not really part of this movement. The clips throughout vary in quality, but the music is always top-notch. In keeping with the focus on performance over exposition, Kultur includes as bonus material an additional 30 minutes of musical clips from the same slate of artists.
The Harlem Renaissance is a crucial period in the cultural history of America. It was a time when urban African Americans were filled with hope and headed upwards—at least in one corner of the country (much of the rest of America was still not so welcoming). If nothing else, Harlem Renaissance is a brief, if succulent, bite of some of the best in American music. I suspect that this documentary was designed for middle schoolers who do not know the Count from the Duke or Dizzy from Satchmo. A teacher can pop this disc in to accompany some classroom readings from Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. But if you are a grown-up and you like what you hear, try Ken Burns's more comprehensive series Jazz to learn more about the history behind this music. Or better yet, get off your butt and buy some jazz CDs.
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