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HER VOICE: BLACK WOMEN FROM THE SPOTLIGHT TO THE SCREEN

Ella Fitzgerald: Just one of Those Things by Esther Austin




Last week I went along to the BFI to review this documentary about a woman who was to become an all time great. The series HER VOICE looks at the complexities of life as self-made Black women in 20th Century America. Ella's story was one about overcoming, about surviving and becoming a success against insurmountable odds. Her life story is one of tenacity, vision and having a determination that was based on changing her circumstances and life. There is a biblical saying: 'Where there is no vision, the people Perish' and Ella was certainly one of those strong black women whose vision was so strong and intrinsically imbedded within her psyche that she was destined to become the great woman she became as was sometimes fondly known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella.


From a young age, one could say that Ella was born into disadvantage, that the odds were already stacked against her simply because of the colour of her skin which racial segregation compounded, that of her basic humanity to be seen and treated as another human being. As a child, Ella was part of the Great Migration from the South for industrialised cities in the North. The frustration for many blacks at the time meant that they threw themselves into dance and music. Many a sound was created from within the belly of anger, repression and racism. One can never truly understand that level of mans inhumanity to man, an ignorance that pervaded into the depths of narcissism and beyond. For Blacks to always be treated like the underdog of society, simply because of the colour of their skin and yet they birthed and created so many beautiful and significant things, is a testament to the essence of who they truly were. Throughout history, black people have always found a way to find a resolve, to take their pain, to try to experience a semblance of their humanity through expression, through the creation of music, the physical expression of dance - which today are the bedrock of many of the dance moves and dance genres we see and even the music and its sound, that the world took and used, even exploited to their own gains, crediting others. Ella's story is one of such an experience. Loosing her mother at the age of 13, it was suspected that she endured abuse at home after that. She also spent some time in a state run reformatory where she was mistreated and was only one of two black girls there at the time. However, she ran away from there and spent periods of time homelessness. Being a woman, and a black woman as well both had their disadvantages along with living with and in extreme poverty every day. And yet, Ella's dream to get out of poverty and to do somethig that was burning in her soul, drove her and one day at the age of 17, a nervous Ella Fitzgerald won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1934. Ella was an orphan and had been dancing on street corners to make a living. So when she attended the Apollo in a dirty dress, with clapped out boots housing skinny legs, she certainly didn't look the epitome of success.



Ella was attending to perform as a dancer, however, a group called The Edwards Sisters who went on before here were so good, she knew she could not level up to them so she decided to sing instead. Now right here we can see the tenacity in this young girl, the hunger to become somebody the hunger to get out of poverty, to live a life she had always dreamed of even though that journey still had limitations and heartache simply because of the colour of her skin, yet Ella carried it all with a grace, a smile and a song in her heart. One of the interviews in the documentary was by dancer Norma Miller who recalls that she and her friends were rowdy teenagers at the time and were at The Apollo that night and they heckled and booed Ella when she came on stage because of her raggedy appearance. However, when Ella opened her mouth and sang, Miller says 'She shut us up so quick, you could hear a rat piss on cotton.'


The Director Leslie Woodhead follows the story through the Harlem Renaissance, the Swing era, the Depression, World War II and the postwar years. Ella recorded her first hit at the age of 19 and also took over as bandleader for a band she was singing with when the popular Harlem bandleader (who had become her mentor) Drummer Chick Webb passed away. Being known as the First Lady of Song, Ella was also called 'the plump chanteuse'. This was because Ella did not fit the look of glamour and being glamourous and all that came with that perception that was represented at the time. Her whole essence was simply one of humility, love, dignity and ease. When she sang you could feel a happyness explode from within her very soul and in those moments, it was everything who she was and in a way, everything that she had experienced, melted away into a warm ball of love and she even had that look of an aunt, a grandmother, someone you could reach out to, someone who could understand you. Ella was a very driven individual and toured well into her 80's. However, she was also an incredible talented and gifted singer. She was noted for her purity of tone, intonation, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. She played with some of history's greats such as Count Basie and appeared on TV with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. She became that figure of a strong Black, successful woman to so many people. A representation of something more than a slave, than an underdog. She became a symbol of hope for her people and an open doorway for others to step through to embrace not only who she was and what she bought to the table as a legend, but as a human being. And as a result throughout the documentary legends like Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Cleo Laine, Patti Austin and Smokey Robinson, spoke about the impact Ella had on their lives. One memorable occasion and one that was part of charting a change in the course of history was Marilyn Monroe's defiance of the system of segregation that secured Ella a crucial booking at the Mocambo. The dancer Miller said in the documentary 'Everything was race. You couldn't go outside your zone.' Black people could work at the Cotton Club, onstage and off, but not go there as customers. Years later, in Los Angeles, the colour barrier persisted event for performers at the city's hotspots and it took the threats and clout of Marilyn Monroe who was an avid fan of Ella to secure the singer a crucial booking at the Mocambo.


In between all of the above Ella and then husband, Bebop Bas Player Ray Brown, adopted Ray Brown Jnr who was the son of Ella's half sister Frances. Greats such as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and many others were regular visitors during his childhood. Ray Brown and Ella's marriage was brief. Sadly, the pressures of fame and life in the spotlight affected Fitzgerald and Brown’s relationship, and in 1953, the couple divorced. However, after their divorce they continued to work together. This in itself again shows the humility and deep love of the essence of life itself that Ella carried in her soul. This documentary was mesmerising, poignant, inspiring, empowering and enriching all at the same time. Ella travelled extensively and got into places where many others couldn't and this was in part because of her white manager at the time, who fought for her to perform in segregated venues.

This is a film of Hope, but one that shows the spirit of human tenacity. Ella was a Queen within herself. Her regalness and the royalty of standing strong in who she was, is something we can all take note of and look up to. So in essence, follow your dreams no matter what. A journey will hone and sharpen you, it will take you places inside of yourself, but ultimately it's how you choose to live it and to never, ever give up on the belief that you deserve only the best. And WHY? Because we can look up to those who have gone before, with pride, dignity and say 'well done, you opened the door, you led the way.'


(April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996)


HerVoice: Black Women From the Spotlight to the Screen is at BFI Southbank from 17 May – 30 June. Tickets on sale now at bfi.org.uk/whatson Director: Leslie Woodhead Production Company: Eagle Rock Entertainment Ltd

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