Black and Tan (1929): Cultural Status–National Film Registry 2015

In Black and Tan, the first short musical films to showcase African-American jazz musicians, Duke Ellington portrays a struggling musician whose dancer wife (Fredi Washington in her film debut) secures him a gig for his orchestra at the famous Cotton Club where she’s been hired to perform, at a risk to her health.

Directed by Dudley Murphy, who earned his reputation with “Ballet mécanique,” which is considered a masterpiece of early experimental filmmaking, the film reflects the cultural and artistic explosion of the 1920s–the Harlem Renaissance.

Ellington and Washington personify that movement,  and  Murphy—who also directed “St. Louis Blues” (1929), another musical short, and the feature “The Emperor Jones” (1933) starring Paul Robeson—made a film to inspire future generations.

Fredi Washington, who appeared with Robeson in “Emperor Jones,” is best known as “Peola” in the 1934 version of “Imitation of Life.”