Entertainer Bill Williams (Bill Robinson) receives a programme in the post which features tributes from the people who worked with him down the years, and the neighbourhood kids who he teaches to dance are intrigued: what kind of life did he have before he retired to this quiet town? Easily persuaded, Bill sits down with them and tells his story, which began when he was demobbed from an infantry who fought in the First World War with his best friend Gabe (Dooley Wilson). He wanted to start a career in showbusiness, but found it difficult to get his foot on anything but the lowest rung of the ladder, though help would come from a relation of one of his buddies who didn't make it home...
1943 was a good year for early African American cinema, if only thanks to two films in Hollywood, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. They both featured all-black casts, but the former was more akin to a revue of the talent 20th Century Fox had at their disposal as the plot itself was merely an excuse to string together the musical numbers, not something exclusive to this movie, it had to be said. But what talent there was, starting with the headlining Lena Horne, whose agent was trying to establish her as a star of cinema and not only of theatres and nightclubs; alas, the racism of the United States saw her largely relegated to one-off numbers that could be cut out for the Southern States.
So how nice to see her here, proving she could have carried many films if she had been given the opportunity (though she quickly tired of Hollywood and her treatment there), as indeed did almost every performer in Stormy Weather. Let's not get too romantic about this: after those two efforts the world did not change overnight, and they remained very much anomalies in the Golden Age of American cinema where actors of colour were regularly relegated to servant roles, but with this it was as if, as the Second World War began to change attitudes, the nation was waking up to the idea that their minorities were not some second-class citizens, but vital and individual contributors to society.
Certainly there was an impression that Stormy Weather had as much been created for white audiences to alert them to the abilities of black performers as it had been to cash in on the black market, Horne's version of the title track a major success for her, so it was significant Dooley Wilson be in the cast, as the year before he had impressed audiences across the world as Sam in the classic Casablanca, one of the first instances of a black man being on an equal status with the white character who was his best friend, in that case Humphrey Bogart as Rick. Here Wilson was a delight in a more comedic role, scoring some big laughs as Robinson's sidekick, though Robinson was probably the best known black star to international audiences at the time thanks to his dancing appearances with little Shirley Temple in the previous decade.
Robinson, also known as Mr Bojangles (which the song lifted its title from, though it's not about him specifically), pioneered tap dancing as a popular form, and Fred Astaire in particular was not only a huge fan but owed him a great debt too. In this, his last film, he was getting on a bit at sixty-five so was not as energetic as he had been, but still dances even most sixty-five-year olds these days to shame. The rest of the cast were equally sparkling, as Fats Waller, who would be dead within months, was highly amusing as a natural entertainer, and Cab Calloway surprisingly not delivering Minnie the Moocher but making up for it with a storming rendition of Jumping Jive of his own composition, made all the more dazzling by being danced to by the legendary Nicholas Brothers, those unbelievably athletic performers who thought nothing of leaping down a staircase doing the splits over one another's heads, beaming all the way. That was such a showstopping combination that the film has nowhere else to go, but it had made its point, and continues to inspire to this day.