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Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel for her role in Gone With The Wind
photo sourced from Bill Jones

BLACK HOLLYWOOD HISTORY

Part 1
by Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica.com


Black Hollywood Photos


    Though one should never underestimate the contributions of Oscar Micheaux creating Black Roadshow Cinema or Bert Williams, the first major Black film star in 1914, movie studio executives have yet to fully repair the negative legacy they created for Black Hollywood. Yet, when one views historical accounts through the prism of time, there is much reason for optimism, especially in 2010.

    Before TV and Radio, movies were the principal dynamic medium to form group image perceptions. Hollywood movies shaped white perception of Black folks more than any peaceful NAACP rally or stately Booker T. Washington appearance next to the President. Beginning in 1905, most African Americans portrayed in Hollywood films were white actors in blackface. To studio executives at the time, only white actors were smart enough to play imbecilic Negroes. To summarize writer Gary Null in his book Black Hollywood, movie studios adopted a long standing, minstrel stage practice of portraying Black males as slow talking, slew footed, dim witted imbeciles and irresponsible, lazy bucks. This box-office practice continued well into the 1930s and even appeared in children’s animated films. Established Black stage actors could only elbow into the peripheral roles of nanny or butler. Furthermore, movie trade unions were closed to African Americans who aspired to craftwork behind the lens as writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, set designers, costumers, carpenters, plumbers, painters, make-up and hair stylists.

    The most damaging perception of the Black male image was manufactured in 1915 in the movie Birth of a Nation. Movie mogul D.W. Griffith spared no expense producing and directing this, the first epic film. Birth of a Nation advanced the art of film making and did box office equivalent to the magnitude of 1997's Titanic movie. White audiences cheered and jeered with each repeated viewing of its grand spectacle. European Americans who missed the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) but saw the film, could establish an emotional connection to white Southerners’ deep resentment of Black citizenship.

    Several Black male stereotypes were bronzed in Birth of a Nation: untrustworthy, savage, dumb, slow, bug-eyes, murderer and worst of all, rapist of white women. To slightly re-write a phrase coined about the film, "It was like re-writing history with lightening." Based on artistic criteria ignoring social context and historical truth, Birth of a Nation is indeed a milestone of cinema. But in the 21st century, should a milestone of artistry be the only criteria to keep it on the American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films List? That makes as much sense as placing one of Hitler’s masterful propaganda films of Nazi death camp
efficiency on a list of greatest documentaries.

    Another horrible legacy was visited upon Black Hollywood
just after the Birth of Nation perception trailed off. In 1925, Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) arrived. He was a huge Hollywood star to white fans, became a millionaire during the Depression and played in 51 movies beginning in 1925. Unfortunately, his ingratiating style of acting was the perfect example to slander an entire race of people for the entertainment of another race. Viewing his need for work in the most charitable light, one can understand him playing a dim-witted-flunky role in the 1920s and early 1930s to acquire a pile of money otherwise out of reach to Black folks, especially during the Great Depression. But by the mid-1930s, the NAACP and Black newspapers mild criticisms of his roles had grown to a roar. I don't know how long his studio contract lasted, but by 1936, he had enough money and fan recognition to demand more humanity in the roles. If he did not get it, he could have left for more meaningful projects on Broadway the same as other Black actors did. But Stepin Fetchit stayed to play variations of the same demeaning caricature until 1953. In my book, that equates to selling his soul for a dollar.

    To movie studio executives, Stepin Fetchit created a bankable role to spin-off and repeat with other actors. Blinded with money lust and ignorance, they failed to imagine African Americans in non-Fetchit or servant roles. Only musicals that showcased our "natural rhythm" were a pleasant exception on the silver screen. In the latter cases, Black musicians and singers, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Paul Robeson, were recruited to deliver that natural rhythm. Fortunately, after years of NAACP protest and notable Black actors turning down work in Hollywood, a touch of dignity snuck in the back door.


    In 1939, Hattie McDaniel's command performance as the nanny in Gone With the Wind took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. A great actress, she was clearly capable of more diverse material after that groundbreaking role.  But to racial sentiments typical of the time, movie studio executives pigeonholed her career as a servant, nanny or day worker.  With the notable exceptions of Ethel Waters and to a lesser extent, Lena Horne and Hazel Scott as leading ladies, many talented and charismatic Black actors like Hattie could not find suitable work in Hollywood.  The celebrity status of outspoken actress and singer Hazel Scott, was further enhanced by her marriage to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1945.

 

   By the late 1940s however, enough Black actors and musicians were gainfully employed in Hollywood to form a Sugar Hill residential district surrounded today by Washington Blvd, Adams Blvd, Western Ave and I-10 Freeway in the West Adams District of Los Angeles. A summary of this era can read in Thomas Cripps' book Making Movies Black

 

    An inkling of social progress was afoot in Hollywood after World War II.  In 1950, Hazel Scott hosted a national network TV show. Unfortunately, the brief-lived show never attracted many stars or sponsor support.



Dorothy Dandridge & Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones; credit AMPAS


    James Snead’s book White Screens, Black Images provides a penetrating look at the 1950s when several Black actors established leading roles.  Dorothy Dandridge, a successful national nightclub singer and bit-role actor from the 1940s through 1953, led the charge.  When Dorothy heard that an all black production of Carmen Jones was being planned for 1954, she embraced it with both arms.  Austrian director Otto Preminger had a dainty image of Dorothy based on her earlier roles.  She was first cast as the meek girlfriend of Harry Belafonte.  But Dorothy, dressed as Carmen Jones, entered Otto’s office and seduced him into awarding her the sultry role of a lifetime.  Just prior to the film’s release, Dorothy also appeared on the November 1st cover of Life magazine.  Thus, media buzz built up for Dorothy Dandridge to be recognized as the first African American nominated in a Best Actor or Best Actress category for the movie, Carmen Jones in 1954.

    Dorothy Dandridge had the same magnetic beauty and acting verve as her white contemporaries Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, whose stars were also rising.  Unlike them, Dorothy could also sing and dance, so Carmen Jones should have been the break-through role opening many more doors afterwards.  But since she was not white in the 1950s, her wide range of cinematic talent bore little fruit afterwards.

    A studio executive asked that Dorothy play something unthinkable to ask of white leading lady nominated for Best Actress -- a slave character in a minor role AFTER her nomination.  The Tuptim slave role (eventually played by Rita Moreno) was in the blockbuster film, The King and I.  According to well-placed sources, Dorothy verbally agreed with the studio chief to play the role just before learning of her Carmen Jones Oscar-nomination.  No doubt the studio chief informed his production team and board of directors that he hit a home-run by casting Dorothy Dandridge in the upcoming slave role and therefore, put his reputation on the line.  The studio chef also wanted to gradually increase Dorothy’s acceptance with white audiences to increase her box-office appeal in subsequent movies.  Though his plan was completely unacceptable by today's standards, the studio chief thought he was taking the right "grooming" approach for those times. 


    With hindsight, we can speculate that Dorothy should have negotiated a stronger presence for the Tuptim slave role and a suitable leading role in next movie.  Unfortunately, Dorothy listened to her director-lover Otto Preminger, and reneged on playing the Tuptim role.  Thus, Dorothy committed the ultimate taboo for any actor during the "Studio System" of the 1950s -- breaking a verbal or written contract with a powerful studio chief.  In that system, a close circle of studio chiefs discussed which actors would be loaned to other studios and which ones should not be hired, "blackballed."  Dorothy was quickly blackballed.  She could only take short-term solace from Carmen Jones that permitted her to buy a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills.  Future acting roles for the lady Lena Horne called “our Marilyn Monroe” would be few and far between.


    Despite Dorothy Dandridge's negative experience, Hollywood was progressing on social issues faster than the rest of America.  One milestone happened in November 1956 when the Nat King Cole Show launched on NBC TV broadcast nationwide.  Initially begun as a 15-minute live show, it was expanded to a half hour in July 1957.  And for good reason. Unlike the earlier effort by Hazel Scott, Nat's program had big-time star power:  Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Billy Preston and Eartha Kitt who worked at scale to help the fledgling program.  Unfortunately, the program could not obtain a major national sponsor.  That was more of a social commentary about America at that time, than the ability of the show to attract an audience. Without national sponsorship, the last episode aired on 17 December 1957.  Undaunted, Nat played in short films, sit-coms, television programs, and several big budget movies where he secured legions of adoring fans of all races.  Today's Hollywood stars can also thank Nat King Cole for crossing the residential color line in the late 1950s, when he purchased a home in Hancock Park.  For those who don't know, old-money Hancock Park located south of Hollywood, has many homes equivalent to Beverly Hills.  In the 1950s, it probably had as many movie stars too.


    In Dorothy Dandridge's next movie role, 1957's Island In The Sun, she and Harry Belafonte acted in a story of two interracial relationships on a Caribbean island.  It was a hot concept with great cinematic potential, but studio executives feared that if interracial romantic relationships appeared "too normal" on screen, racial sentiments of the time would damage box office appeal.  Consequently, the actors could not kiss, intimately hug or engage in racy dialogue.  Those artistic restrictions crippled the movie, which of course did more damage for Dorothy's and Harry's career than it did for the esteemed white actors.  It should be noted that forward-thinking white actors, James Mason and Joan Fontaine didn't like how their scripted roles were butchered either.  Critics justifiably panned the movie and patrons stayed away.

 

   Dorothy's next project was a low budget Italian-French production in 1958 called Tamango.  Due to steamy (for those times) interracial love scenes between Dorothy and the white male actor, Tamango was not released in America until 1962.  The 4-year delay and low budget quality of the movie damaged her American box-office appeal.  She also appeared another B-budget movie with James Mason in 1958, The Decks Ran Red.


Nat King Cole crossed the residential color line in the 1950s in this Hancock Park home

 

    In 1959, studio executives called Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge to play lead roles in the A-list cinematic adaptation of George Gershwin's demeaning Black musical, Porgy and Bess. Belafonte was unwilling to be blackballed by the movie studios for the demeaning role of Porgy.  He rejected the project and urged Dorothy to do likewise.  But Dorothy needed the money (she had a sick child) and hoped that co-leading another A-list movie would remove her from the blacklist.  Under similar threat of studio blackballing, Sidney Poitier played Porgy.  Sammy Davis, Jr. played the erstwhile sidekick Sportin’ Life. Pearl Bailey played Maria and Diahann Carroll played Clara.  The film turned-off African Americans and did mediocre box office.  At least Dorothy could take solace that her performance as Bess earned a nomination for Best Actress by the Golden Globe Awards.  In 1959, she married a nightclub owner.  The big news in 1959 however, was that Sidney Poitier was nominated for Best Actor in The Defiant Ones.  Sidney, Pearl, Sammy and Diahann went on to movie and/or TV fame. 


    Remarkably, the vivacious Dorothy Dandridge could only obtain roles in two low budget films, Malaga (1960) and The Murder Men (1961) for the rest of her life. She lost money in his failing business and in the divorce that followed in 1962.  Then she had to sell her house to pay back taxes.  Shrouded under a disintegrating career, loss of her handicapped child to a state institution, broken marriages and big financial losses, alcohol and barbiturates became her closest friends.  Tragically, Dorothy died at age 41 from an accidental barbiturate overdose on 8 September 1965.  Or was it really the price of being a defiant Hollywood pioneer?


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