The Cotton Club
Directed by -- Francis Ford Coppola
Written by -- Francis Ford Coppola, William Kennedy (II)
-- Richard Gere (Dixie Dwyer)
-- Diane Lane (Vera Cicero)
-- Gregory Hines (Sandman Williams)
-- Lonette McKee (Ula Rose Oliver)
-- Bob Hoskins (Owney Madden)
-- James Remar (Dutch Schultz)
-- Nicholas Cage (Vincent "Mad Dog" Dwyer)
-- Maurice Hines (Clay Williams)
Briefly, this film is Coppola's attempt to "redeem" the Italian Mafia after The Godfather. Basically, what the Godfather suggests (to the naive viewer) is that only Italians were in organized crime, that it was the "cool" thing to do, and that it was impossible to get out. Godfather has been compared to America, and the Mafia to the American Dream. This is very much not what Coppola intended, which is one reason he made cotton club.
Dixie Dwyer, a white cornet player, accidentally saves the life of gangster Dutch Schultz. He suddenly becomes entwined in the mafia lifestyle. It is there where he meets Vera, and falls in love. But, alas, Vera belongs to Dutch.
Sandman and Clay Williams are two tapdancing brothers that make it to the Cotton Club. Sandman falls in love with Ula Rose, and pursues her, as well as his solo career. This makes his brother sad, and their sibling rivalry takes hold.
This film has it all; great music, beautiful women, guns, fighting, and a happy ending. Some really funny parts (to me) were when Dixie Dwyer was taking a screen test, they said "can't act, but is good looking." You could totally tell they were directly referencing Richard Gere. Other cool parts were when we saw Charlie Chaplin in the club, and when Cab Calloway sang Minnie the Mooch.
Curtain up. Enter beautiful, leggy dancers glittering in the bright lights, creating intricate patterns with their bodies; the camera filters light to gold, moving, swaying, dancing with them to the jazzy sounds. We are immediately taken aback by the beauty of the dancers, the beauty of their dance, the beauty of the film. Yes, from the opening credits, Coppola sets the tone for this movie; glorifying art with supreme taste and style.
It is 1928; we are in the middle of Harlem, the setting of Owney Madden’s famed Cotton Club, where rich whites can gawk at the supremely beautiful and talented Black dancers, singers and musicians. It is here where we are told the story of Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), a (very talented) white cornet player. (Richard Gere plays his own cornet, I didn't know he had talent!) The only white, I might add, in an all Black band. Dixie began playing in the Cotton Club after inadvertently saving the life of Dutch Schultz, and was inducted into the glamorous world of the mob.
In the beginning, we are already witnessing the ridiculous racism of the times; the interior of the Cotton Club featured murals of slavery; its very name is a reference to Black slaves picking cotton. On stage blacks show off their talents for crowds of whites; Blacks were not allowed to visit the club to watch their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends or significant others perform. In fact, Black performers were not even allowed in the front door of the establishment.
Dixie Dwyer’s name was quite obviously a choice by the writers and directors. Dixie is a term for a southerner or the south, where the cotton picking took place. The phrase “whistling Dixie” refers to people that engage in unrealistically rosy fantasizing. I believe that Dixie Dwyer symbolizes the idealistic youth; he is not a racist character, he does not want to work for “the man” (the man being either the Mob or traditional American government, you pick).
Vera Cicero (Diane Lane) is the main love interest in this film; perhaps to the point of being a femme fatale. As a young flapper she catches our eye (as well as Dixie’s), and begin to see the budding relationship. But, alas, she belongs to Dutch Schultz, a horribly brutal Jewish mobster. It is here that the Mob lifestyle, with all it’s glitz and glamour is questioned. What is the point of having things when you lack freedom? Really Coppola is refuting the connection between the Mob and the American Dream (Making it clear to all those that misenterpereted this in The Godfather.) This movie is really comparing the Mob lifestyle to slavery, and doing an excellent job at it.
Later in the film, Dixie takes Vera out to dance, and they begin fighting (physically). Soon, all the other patrons of the club are hitting each other. The dual between violence and art is exemplified here; as well as the sheep-like quality of the typical Americans. We copy what we see, without understanding it. This is why we have a problem with violence in movies and video games; because people cannot think for themselves. This also applies to racism in Mafia movies. Directors see what sells and imitate it. They are easily as sheep-like as the viewers by using the typical Mafia formula over and over again, without question. And the viewers then believe that the Mafia is a glamorous, fun lifestyle, and that the only group of organized criminals are Italians. This is not only racist towards Italians, but towards all other groups. By omitting ethnicities from films, we are denying their importance in history.
Dancing in the Cotton Club are the Williams Brothers (played by Gregory and Maurice Hines), fabulous tapdancers who develop a sibling rivalry. “Sandman” Williams falls in love with Ula Rose Oliver, a singer and dancer at the club, half Black, half white. While Sandman works to maintain his roots, Ula Rose pursues a Broadway career. Ula Rose represents America’s melting pot, disregarding one’s original culture for capitalism. She really exemplified the fact that, in order to get anywhere in this culture, one must become “white.” This takes her (and anyone else forced into this dilemma) into an awkward, confusing state, where she does not have an identity to easily relate to. She brings to mind the fact that the only real difference between Blacks and whites are semiotics. Physical appearance. We feel her plea when she states “I’m not Black, I’m not White, I’m a human being.”
This movie really fights to diminish racism (and sexism), not only socially, but in the general perspective of the Mob. Typically, we think of the Italian Mafia when we hear “Mob.” But in this film, the Italians carry the smallest weight; its only appearance being Lucky Luciano’s cameo towards the end of the film. Here, we see an English mobster (Owney Madden) as the proprieter of a club. We see a Jewish mobster (Dutch Schultz), not as an accountant, but as the most violent of all. We see the Irish mob in the Dwyer brothers, Mad Dog as a low end murderer, and Dixie as the mobster that redeems himself. And we see the Black mob, with Bumpy Rhodes plotting to hurt their white oppressors. These characters seem to have been omitted from history, and it is not until 1984 that their stories were told. And through Vera and Ula Rose, women are depicted as business-minded and intelligent, not as bimbos. Another new concept for film.
Coppola also shows us that the Mob is something that can be outsmarted. Both Owney Madden and Dixie Dwyer find a way out, and become respectable citizens (Owney moves to Hot Springs after serving a Jail sentence; Dixie becomes an actor), rather than a slave to a life of crime. He is really suggesting that we take control of our own destinies, we have a choice as to what harm we do.
This film is a duel between art and violence, and in the end (shown blatantly with Sandman kicking the gun out of Dutch’s hand), it is the art that shines through. Coppola’s shots are constantly beautiful. I loved the beginning, and the scene of Vera and Dixie making love with that beautiful curtain’s shadow over them, but the sequence of Sandman dancing (at the end) was one of the most phenomenal things I have seen. The editing and sound were dead on, the dancing fabulous, and the last (and most horrible) racist gangster was shot. And the audience claps. For Sandman’s amazing performance, of course, but also for the death of Dutch Schultz, even though the Cotton Club’s audience is unaware of what has just happened. I think what Coppola is trying to point out here is that art can mask any horrible thing that goes on (like in the Godfather); spectators will still clap for what they do not understand.
Bright lights, big bands. Show’s over. Go home.