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…