This film is full of joy and a real celebration of African-American entertainment in 1943. The premise is that Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson is looking back on a life in entertainment, and as he reminisces, we see one brilliant performance after another from a galaxy of stars. There's Robinson himself, of course, who at age 65 dances infectiously throughout the movie, but my favorites were his 'sand dance' on a riverboat, and his tap dancing on giant bongos. I loved seeing Fats Waller performing 'That Ain't Right' with Ada Brown, and then 'Ain't Misbehaving', his eyebrows all a-twitter. There's Lena Horne singing the title song, 'Stormy Weather' with a great segue to an imagined scene out the window which featured the stylish and sultry dancing of Katherine Dunham and her troupe (which reminded me of the Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse number 12 years later in 'Singin' in the Rain'). The high-octane Cab Calloway and his orchestra play 'Jumpin' Jive', which included an amazing dance sequence by the Nicholas Brothers, who leap high and land in so many splits you wonder how their bodies can possibly take it. And those are just the highlights - this film is jam packed in its 78 minutes, with numbers that demonstrate stunning creativity and musicality.
There are a few stereotypes which sneak in, including comedians in blackface, but those elements are small, and the spirit of the movie soars. It may have less plot development, less nuance in its characters, and less polish than white musicals at the time, and could be rightly criticized as reducing its African-American stars to 'just entertainers'. On the other hand, this was the state of America at the time, the movie represents a step forward, and I was very happy for what I did see, instead of disheartened for what I did not. Perhaps thought of another way, the entertainers' performances are so brilliant they transcend the narrow framework they're placed in, exploding off the screen. How sad it is that Fats Waller would die just a few months after its release, and that this would be Robinson's last film, but how wonderful that all of these performances were captured in this beautiful little movie.