By Iris Raeshaun
The Nicholas Brothers: Stormy Weather documentary is currently showing in film festivals worldwide, including California’s LA Shorts International Film Festival on July 27th, and will be a highlight in the Academy Museum’s Blacks in Cinema exhibit starting August 21. Already nominated for a Best Short Documentary by the Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary highlights the rise of legendary dancers Harold and Fayard Nicholas to international stardom and how contemporary dance genres such as Break Dancing and Hip Hop, derived from their ingenuity. Still considered among the greatest dancers of all time, the Nicholas Brothers were among the first Black entertainers to star in mainstream Hollywood movies.
Tony and Cathie Nicholas, the son and granddaughter of Fayard Nicholas, hope that audiences learn more about the Nicholas Brothers’ impact on modern dance.
“The film portrays The Nicholas Brothers in such a wonderful, wonderful light,” says Tony, who was born in 1945 during the height of his father Fayard’s and Uncle Harold’s careers. Tony came to know some of the most influential artists of the time, including his godfather Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, his aunt Dorothy Dandridge, and family friends including Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr.
“The vision to cast Savion Glover and Les Twins to break down the Nicholas Brothers’ story is exceptional,” he added.
Savion Glover, considered to be the greatest living tap dancer, narrates Nicholas Brothers: Stormy Weather.He is a Tony Award winner who has also danced with Sammy Davis Jr., Lon Chaney, and Gregory Hines. He choreographed the Happy Feet movies and performed as “the feet” for the main character, Mumble, the penguin. Glover owns the @HooFeRzClub where he teaches dance.
Les Twins, considered the greatest dancers of contemporary society, add their originality to the storyline. Les Twins won the million-dollar purse of the 2017 World of Dance competition and has since continued to rise to international fame as dancers, actors, models, and entrepreneurs.
“Savion is not only a gem to our Tap world, but to our culture,” says Cathie. “He’s an incredible gatekeeper.”
Cathie is the artistic director, choreographer, and master teacher of Tap, Jazz, Ballet, and Hip Hop at Nicholas Dance Studio in the historic Crenshaw Corridor of Los Angeles.
“Having Les Twins pay homage with their own choreography is an example of what the Nicholas Brothers did, perform their own choreography. Les Twins are the most famous contemporary dancers with whom Beyonce chooses to share her stage. When they perform, they perform their own choreography, no one else’s’, and will not change their style for anyone. They’re brothers who ‘do them’ and that translates on screen,” says Cathie.
Music composer Moses Boyd infuses the African diaspora with sounds of jazz and percussions synthesized with a drumline.
“The point of the film is to bridge the past to the present and show influences in current day,” says producer Michael Shevloff, “and that extends to the music as well.”
The original 1943 Stormy Weather musical included a brass band accompanying the Nicholas Brothers’ iconic Jumpin’ Jive acrobatic dance performance. In one three-and-one-half minute unrehearsed take, the brothers effortlessly flash dance, with splits (sixteen), spins, high jumps, steps, and taps, all while suited, smiling, and not missing a beat, causing fellow-dancer Fred Astaire to call it the greatest dance routine he’d ever seen! They were the apex of the film featuring Lena Horn, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Cab Calloway. It was one of only two Hollywood musicals produced with an African American cast.
During a time when African Americans were only cast in uncivilized, subservient roles, or ridiculed in minstrel shows, the Nicholas Brothers refused roles with such depictions. They never forgot where they came from or their parents’ raising them to have pride, self-respect, and to always go out presentable and carry themselves with class. So, they only presented themselves in positive fashion, thereby becoming known for their meticulous attire. It was one way in which they actively rallied against African Americans being negatively portrayed in films and in life.
Tony recalls another incident in which his father pushed back against social norms when a bell caption asked Fayard to “leave the lobby” because African Americans were supposed to be in the back.
“Their names would be just as large on marquees alongside Frank Sinatra’s…and they would be expected to use the back door,” says Tony, “but they would not tolerate or be subjected to any indignities. My father responded, ‘I’ll leave when I finish my drink.’”
When the brothers were consulted or asked to provide choreography for films, they weren’t credited for their signature movements.
“That was the sign of the times,” Tony said. “They tried to promote the other choreographers, but people knew who really did the work.”
Glover emphatically agrees.
“We knew the truth. We knew that no one else could choreograph and execute such moves but them,” says Glover.
Nicholas Brothers: Stormy Weather is a very edutaining experience that shows audiences the Nicholas Brothers’ strength during adversity and how they didn’t just smile and pretend like injustices didn’t exist but were social activists initiating change. And, as Langston Hughes once said, perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people and the beauty within themselves, the Nicholas Brothers did so remarkably while communicating the stories of people through dance.
The film will show 5:30 p.m., July 27th in the LA Shorts International Film Festival, July 21-28, 2022, and August 21, 2022, in the Academy Museum’s Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971. The exhibit will explore the visual culture of Black cinema from its early days to just after the Civil Rights Movement. It is the first of its kind – a research-driven in-depth look at Black participation in American filmmaking.
“As we see, films live forever,” says Cathie. “We love for people to say their names, share their stories with their children, and help their names live on.”