Look Back at It
And truly, the first half of Valaida Snow’s life filmed like a dream, and Nichelle was perfect in the role, and though, in the interest of respectability politics, the script edits decided to gloss over the intensity of the abuse in Snow’s first marriage, and the scandalous age gap between Snow and her second husband, whom she married when she was 35 and he was 19, an audience might never have missed those omissions, captivating as it was to watch Nichelle sing and dance her way through the Swing era, to hear Snow’s trumpeting reproduced in surround sound by a Florida A&M musical prodigy, to take in the visual buffet of sets and establishing shots of the early years of Snow’s tour of Europe and Asia. The problem for Snow was that, having left her own country because she knew it to be a dangerous place, the idea that she should have to leave Europe and return to the US in the interest of her safety or freedom seemed laughable. She stayed on tour in Denmark when US performers were summoned home (Home! Where in her birth state of Tennessee she had no legal standing!) and so Valaida Snow, musical prodigy, international jazz celebrity, sparkling star of stage and screen, came to be detained in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Whatever happened to her there she never recovered from it — when she came back to the states after a brokered prisoner exchange, she was under 90 pounds and psychologically defeated. She told her version of the story to a skeptical press, was dismissed as a fabulist, married again, and performed to smaller and smaller audiences literally up to the end, when at 51 she died of an aneurysm backstage at one of her own shows.
The trouble for the script was in deciding what in fact had happened to her during those terrible lost months. Snow spent the last decades of her life telling the press that she’d been abducted from Denmark and taken by the Nazis to a German concentration camp; the official record suggested she’d been arrested for drug use by the Danish before the Germans arrived, was still in a Copenhagen prison when the occupation began, and stayed there until she was put back on a ship to New York. These questions — of Snow’s honesty, of the depth of her addiction, of to what degree she was a victim of or witness to the worst horrors of the Holocaust — are, as you might imagine, rather important and incredibly sensitive, and, unable to resolve them to the satisfaction of everyone involved, the film boldly chose to avoid them.