Dancing and Shooting: The Cotton Club (1984)

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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It is a truism that lesser works by interesting artists are preferable than interesting works by lesser artists, and this definitely applies to Francis Ford Coppola and The Cotton Club (1984). The movie straddles various genres (gangster film, musical, period piece), while focusing on two couples (Richard Gere and Diane Lane as Dixie and Vera, Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee as Sandman and Lila). The genre-crossing impulse, however, clashes with the rhythm and overall development of the film. In the wake of his most famous mob films (if one can possibly classify the Godfathers as such), Coppola operatically portrays the period, using numerous figures (fictional and non-fictional) such as Dutch Schultz, the petty criminal Vincent Dwyer (Nicolas Cage, playing Dixie’s younger brother), the marginal gang leader Bumpy Rhodes, and even Lucky Luciano makes a late appearance in the game.

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Most of these storylines do not come together at all, or when they do, they lack a sense of integral relationship with the core of the film, however that may be defined.It seems like Coppola tried to fashion a history of the Club as representative of many of the issues of the day, such as race and mob violence, including a satirical jab at movies as creating the very clichés we use to refer to mob violence (Dixie turning from a petty criminal aide to a movie star). While not formally a history of the Cotton Club, the director lavished attention on the staging of the musical numbers, and the recreation of the period, and it is a joy to watch Gregory Hines dance (he even recreates Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s legendary step dance). These numbers though seem oddly disconnected from the rest of the film.

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Intertwined with the period themes is the subject of race and racial identity and discrimination. Now as timely as in 1984 (depressingly so), there are several scenes that address racial relationships and the tensions that arise from them. Lawrence Fishburne, for example, explaining his only option in life (“I only gotta stay black and die”) rings true even in contemporary America, especially after the wave of killings of black people by the United States police. There is also Lila and Sandman’s relationship, and the exploration of the limits of racial identity (“biological nonsense”, as Kwame Anthony Appiah rightly puts it): when they are trying to get a room in a hotel that does not accept interracial couples (Lila looks white), the receptionist asks her what color she is. She replies that one parent was black, the other was white. “What color does that make me?” Even Sandman criticizes her, later in bed, for passing off as white, and she gets mad – rightfully so. If that makes her life easier, who is he to judge?

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Cotton Club’s most notable achievement (and failure) is the attempt to organically combine the musical and gangster film genres, coming together only at the glorious last sequence. It is signaled by Dixie standing next to his movie poster, Mob Boss – the film about gangsters, within the film about gangsters – as the sublimely melancholic score by John Barry swells. After that, a parallel montage commences, alternating between a musical number at the Club and various characters at the train station where they (not subtly) move on to the next chapters in their lives: Bob Hoskins is being seen off to jail by his partner, Frenchy, who behaves like a long-suffering wife, Sandman marries Lila, Dixie unites at last with Vera. Quite inexplicably, but tellingly of Coppola’s half-materialized project to combine the two genres, the musical number ‘spills’ onto the setting of the train station. As dancers in the character of bell boys dance on top of suitcases, and the various characters pause and pose theatrically, the film speaks of life as spectacle and the two merging to the point that one cannot tell reality apart from movie making anymore. In the end, Dixie and Vera go off on a set train that has a lit sign in the front saying “20-th century limited”. The last shot, of one of the patrons at the club waking up just in time to applaud the end of the stage number, further stresses how the whole movie has been staged, a performance for the audience’s sake. It is as if the director gently nudges us from our cinematic slumber, to realize how it was all a dream.

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