The Hidden History of Lena Horne and ‘Stormy Weather’

Men groped women on set and the director disliked Blacks, but what else is new?

Photo illustration; Image sources via Getty Images: LMPC, Underwood Archives

Lena Horne’s honey-dripped vocals and dazzling stage presence is ingrained into the fabric of American popular culture. However, the truth is, the sensational entertainer was never truly a movie star — not really. Certainly, Horne’s velvet voice and sultry look were fixtures on stages like Harlem’s Cotton Club, across radio waves, and in acclaimed theater halls. However, if it were up to Hollywood alone, Horne’s magnetism might have been buried in the past.

Horne should have been the biggest star of her era. Her mega talent is clearly displayed in her performances in Cabin in the Sky and months later, Stormy Weather, which premiered on this day in 1943. However, due to racism and sexism, she would forge another path, one that put her on the frontline of the civil rights movement, and got her blacklisted from Hollywood for a time. Yet, for one shining silver screen moment, amid World War II and in the thick of the Jim Crow era, the then 26-year-old star from Brooklyn blazed bright.

Horne was the first Black actor to sign a seven-year-deal with a major Hollywood studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Still, due to racist practices within the studio system and across the country, Horne was relegated to bit parts or individual musical numbers that could easily be sliced out of films when they played in the volatile Southern states. “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else either,” Horne revealed to Donald Bogle for his book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. “I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland.”

The jazz singer’s role in Stormy Weather was supposed to be different. That same year, she’d starred as the sultry femme fatale, Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, a role that confined her to the Jezebel stereotype that most light skinned Black actresses of the period were forced to embody. When a competing studio, 20th Century Fox, called on her to star opposite tap dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in their Black-cast musical, Stormy Weather, Horne jumped at the opportunity. Though the film is now revered as one of Hollywood’s best musicals, the project was a nightmare for the actress.

“They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me anything else either.”

A system ingrained in racism and White privilege, the Hollywood studios were rarely decent to their Black talent, but Fox Studios was worse. Stormy Weather was fantastic in that it had an entirely Black cast with megastars like the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and Katherine Dunham joining Robinson and Horne. However, the actors were forced to work out of segregated dressing rooms, far away from the White actors in the Fox Studio lot. To bring the film to life, Fox hired D-list director, Andrew Stone, who was White. The filmmaker often talked down to his cast and never bothered to earn their respect. That was just the beginning of Horne’s discontent with the movie.

Stormy Weather is set in the aftermath of World War I and somewhat based on Robinson’s rise to fame. It strayed away from some of the racist stereotypes that engulfed previous Black-cast films like Hallelujah and Cabin in the Sky. Stormy Weather does not use the fictionalized “idyllic South” for its backdrop, a la Disney’s Song of the South. Instead, Harlem is the fast-paced urban setting for this story. Some tropes still made their way in the film. Horne’s character Selina Rogers gives up her dreams of stardom in favor of domestication and motherhood in the end, though it might be considered a blessing that she is not depicted as a “fast, city woman.”

However, there was absolutely no love or IRL chemistry between Horne and Robinson, who was 40 years her senior. The reasons why are complicated and nuanced, and have a lot to do with colorism, racism, and the tropes of that time. Horne refused to perform for segregated audiences throughout her career, and she historically turned down roles of maids and prostitutes. Meanwhile Robinson, who is dark-skinned, was not likely to get work unless he accepted segregated performances and other happy-go-lucky, nonthreatening roles.

Robinson regularly took on belittling and stereotypical characters. His focus was getting work, despite the characters he portrayed. After all, his catchphrase was, “Everything’s copacetic.”

There was absolutely no love or IRL chemistry between the alluring Horne and “Bojangles” Robinson, who was 40 years her senior.

Reports state that Robinson also wasn’t the jovial character he played on-screen. In what would be the final film of his career, he didn’t bond with the rest of the cast. As Ken Bloom writes in Hollywood Musicals: 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time, like other starring men of his time, he constantly sexually harassed the women on set, and he was even rumored to have pulled a gun on saxophonist Benny Carter.

As if the constant disrespect wasn’t enough, Horne was also continually berated for her performance of the film’s titular song. The Wiz legend took on an aloof persona, not allowing herself to connect with an audience who only valued her because of her voice and appearance. This detachment in her musical performances worked against her rendition of “Stormy Weather.” Stone lacked the directorial skill to get Horne to bring forth the soulful passion that he wanted from the song. After berating Horne to no end, esteemed big band man Cab Calloway flipped his famous hair back and finally whispered the name “Ethel Waters” to Horne, prompting her to pay homage to the famed Cotton Club performer’s smoldering delivery of the number.

With a brisk 77-minute run time, stuffed to the brim with no less than 20 musical numbers that fascinate us now, Stormy Weather was not a critical nor box office success when it debuted. However, for one of the first times on-screen, Black people were not relegated to humiliating service roles. Black moviegoers were able to basque in Black joy and pain that had nothing to do with racism or whiteness. They were simply allowed to be. The film also paved the way and began shifting the foundation in Hollywood for actors like Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, who would emerge in the following decade.

Stormy Weather would be the last hoorah for Robinson, who would die penniless, just six years later. Waller died after contracting pneumonia just a few months after the film was released; he was 39. The astoundingly talented Nicholas Brothers would continue to perform in Hollywood, thrust on the screen to entertain while remaining wholly isolated from movie narratives. Calloway would remain successful on the stage and the radio, but less so in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Dunham would gain critical acclaim in Europe and Latin America with her Katherine Dunham Dance Company before finally being recognized as the “Matriarch of Black dance” in the States.

For Horne, who was already exhausted by the racism of show business, Stormy Weather would trigger her disillusion with the industry. Her performance in the film did not prompt Hollywood to care about her or her career. “No one bothered to put me in a movie where I talked to anybody, where some thread of the story might be broken if I were cut,” she said in a 1957 interview. “I had no communication with anybody. I began to feel depressed about it, wasted emotionally.” For the duration of the 1940s, she was regulated to musical numbers in film. In the 1950s, she was labeled a communist and was blacklisted from the industry altogether.

In the end, it was up to Horne, who died in 2010, to reclaim her career and step back into the limelight. She did so by appealing to Hollywood anti-Communist Roy Brewer in a 12-page apology denouncing Communism, disassociating herself with her good friend, Paul Robeson, and centering her concern for the Black community. It was only then that Hollywood cracked its door back open for her. Still, it took Horne decades to find peace with the things she endured while bringing Stormy Weather to the big screen and the challenges she faced in the years following. Before she belted out the eponymous song in her 1981 one-woman Tony-award winning Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, she openly reflected, “It’s taken me 40-some-odd years to grow comfortable with this song. My skin has grown around it. And no matter where it came from or how I got it, I’m allowed to sing it the way I feel.”

Aramide Tinubu is a NYC-based film critic & writer. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss. Find her at awordwitharamide.com.