As our fifth week gets underway, I am finding myself engulfed in research about Louis Armstrong as the man off stage. Admittedly, I did not have an immense amount of Armstrong knowledge entering into this fellowship, but my passion to uncover the truth has truly been my driving force. Through my findings, the topic of Louis in films and his representation in the black/brown community has peaked my interest tremendously. I’ve noticed that often his contributions to the African American narrative have been overshadowed, leaving the current generation unaware of his legacy.
In the early 1900’s, it was uncommon for African Americans to be featured in films, especially as more than background members. Louis Armstrong’s first appearance in a feature length film was in Ex-Flame, premiering in November 1930. Although Louis played himself in the film, his performance brought the image of black people to the screen. Throughout his career he is credited for memorable musical performances in films that captured audiences and boosted their popularity. Performances in films such as 1969’s Hello Dolly featuring Barbara Streisand have transcended throughout the years because of its title song with Louis. Although Louis was cast in movies for performances, he was also an exceptional actor and comedian. The 1936 film Pennies From Heaven showcased these talents in his role as Henry, a hired musician at the Haunted House Café. Louis’ presence on the screen allowed the black community to identify with someone who looked like them and opened doors for future entertainers of color.
Despite the immense fame he reached, Louis was gaining notoriety in the black communities because of the types of roles he played in films. Aside from performing with his band, Louis Armstrong occasionally played characters that represented negative stereotypes of African Americans. This assertion is evident in the 1932 short film Rhapsody in Black and Blue when he is performing with his band in the main character’s dream sequence. Louis is dressed in a leopard cape with an elaborate headdress and animatedly sings much like a character in a minstrel show. In the 1938 film Going Places, Louis plays a horse groomer who interacts with the horse by singing “Jeepers Creepers” and wears tattered clothing with slurred speech compared to his white counterparts in the film. In one perspective, Louis Armstrong being in films amongst the leading white actors and actress is a barrier breaking accomplishment but in another perspective, the roles he took were affirming the already harsh criticisms of black people. For me, his representation allows black people to see their own narratives come to life but it seemed to also exploit the community; allowing white audiences to interpret how people of color act on screen as their true form off camera.
This crossroads is where I have had to analyze and separate Louis Armstrong as the entertainer and as the black man. Considering the time period in which he was gaining fame, being able to share stages and sets with white cast members was unimaginable, yet he consistently proved why he should be there. In the early half of the twentieth century the goal amongst people of color was to open doors to new opportunities that were not previously afforded to them, such as film. The issue lies in whether it is enough to simply open the door rather than be able to enter the room; meaning blacks who criticized his choices argue that he settled into the roles they gave him instead of the ones he deserved. Regardless of which side of the argument one stands, Louis Armstrong’s presence made a difference in how the world viewed black people. Even now, in a society where positive representation is essential, Louis Armstrong’s lengthy career and esteemed fame as the “Father of Jazz” showcases the endless possibilities that people of color have.
As this fellowship progresses, I have begun to digest all of the new information I have received; often mentally placing myself in Louis’ shoes. Granted it is not easy to dismiss the idea that he could have refused to play roles that were demeaning; it is important to understand his position in the context of history and our narrative. My hope is to understand Louis Armstrong as more than a musician, but as a black man overcoming adversity during a peak in civil inequality.