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See Duke Ellington’s Movie Debut

Screening this Sunday and Monday as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Pre-War Black Cinema, 1929’s Black and Tan Fantasy contains Duke Ellington’s first-ever film appearance. As such, it’s a part of both cinema and music history, even though, as a film, it’s basically an excuse to showcase Ellington’s musicianship. What plot it has is minimal: Duke struggles briefly with two piano movers (whose stereotypical depiction is pretty sad and discomforting, at best), then he performs onstage at the Cotton Club. There, the dancer Fredi Washington (playing herself, in a pretty amazing performance that marked her film debut as well) collapses and, on her deathbed, requests that Duke play "Black and Tan." That description, of course, does no justice to the beauty of the music, or to the hypnotic energy of the dance performances, or even the occasional bits of style that director Dudley Murphy throws our way. At times, it’s even possible to sense that this was the same Dudley Murphy who collaborated with Fernand Léger on Ballet Mécanique, one of the seminal films of the early avant-garde. But in the end, this one is all about Duke.

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