The 1959 film version of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, was born into turmoil. Directed by Otto Preminger, and released by Samuel Goldwyn as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, the film was widely panned for its Uncle Tomish vernacular and stereotypical presentation of black life.
Furthermore, the Gershwin family was unhappy with Goldwyn’s changes to the music. Duke Ellington criticized the film’s score, saying “it was not the music of Catfish Row,” the poor African American community where the film was set, “or any other kind of Negroes.” The film played in theaters for just over a month.
For nearly 40 years now, Porgy and Bess— starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr.— has been out of commission; the only copy available for viewing has been in the Library of Congress. This Saturday night, the Gershwin Centennial Festival features a one-time screening of the film at Brooklyn College (call 718-951-4500 for info). Its racial (and sexual) politics remain questionable, but should this Porgy and Bess be locked away? It ain’t necessarily so.