One of the worst things about television films is that they tend to disappear after one airing. However, I remember that the Monday night movie on NBC used to be a weekly thing and ABC had its own original films. Today, the television film series has gone the way of the radio drama. Even mini-series have mostly fallen by the wayside or relegated to outlets like HBO.
What I remember most about these films is that they were heavily centered on the stories of (white) women. Of course, Stephen King mini-series on ABC were huge at the time, but NBC mostly had docudramas focusing on women that you might see later on Lifetime. However, there were rarely stories about women of color and almost none behind the camera.
But in 1992, there was Stompin’ at the Savoy, which aired on CBS. I have vague memories of this film and never saw it until a couple of years ago. Not only did I find out it was about the lives of four black women, but I also discovered that Debbie Allen directed the film. The four leads in the film are superb: Lynn Whitfield as Esther, Vanessa Williams as Pauline, Jasmine Guy as Alice and Vanessa Bell Calloway as Dorothy.
If not for satellite channels like TVOne, I may have never seen the film and it would have remained a vague memory of my adolescence. Yet I’m grateful that this is something I saw in my adulthood so that I could give it my full appreciation. With so many black women in front of and behind the camera, I found an array of stories about black women set against the backdrop of 1930s Harlem.
While the glamour and music are there, the problems and issues that came along with it are also present. This is no utopia. Instead, what we get are stories about black women pursuing their hopes and dreams in their careers and in love. Ambition is a huge driving force with all four women and each one goes about her life in her own way. They also deal with shady business characters, interracial relationships and health among other roadblocks on the way to happiness.
However, what I love most about this film is that the primary focus is on friendship. Friendship among black women is something we don’t often get to see explored in any mainstream film. Of course, there are the love woes and other issues that come to the forefront after the women no longer live together, but the overarching theme of the film is whether or not their friendship will survive the good and bad times and who is willing to sacrifice that friendship in order to achieve success for herself.
With Debbie Allen at the helm, you know you can expect some great music and at least one big choreographed number. Dawn Lewis even portrays Ella Fitzgerald and Williams’ Pauline pursues her dreams of becoming a headliner at the Savoy. Stompin’ at the Savoy is one of those rare treats that puts the lives of black women at the forefront. There are good times and there are bad, but then again, that’s life in 1930s Harlem.
Note: You can find the film in its entirety on YouTube without having to reconstruct the film in pieces.