Commercial movies started screening across America in 1896 shortly after the Supreme Court sanctioned racism in the Separate, But Equal ruling. Movies were the principal medium to communicate news, social customs and visual entertainment to millions of Americans each week. Thus, Hollywood movies shaped white folks perception of black folks. In 1905, most African-Americans portrayed in Hollywood films were white actors in blackface. To movie studio executives, 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, irresponsible, slew-footed, dim-wits and lazy bucks. This practice continued well into the 1930s and even appeared in children’s animated films.
The most damaging perception of the black male image was manufactured in the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation. Studio mogul D.W. Griffith spared no expense producing and directing Hollywood’s first epic movie — a glorified Klu Klux Klan recruitment film. Birth of a Nation advanced the art & science of filmmaking and did box office sales equivalent to 1997’s Titanic movie.
White audiences too young to witness the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) cheered and jeered with each repeated viewing of its grand spectacle. As effective propaganda, the movie enabled 20th century white folks to establish a deep emotional connection with white Southerners who resented black citizenship after the Civil War. 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 strict criteria that ignores racial propaganda and historical truth, Birth of a Nation is indeed a milestone of artistic cinema. But in the 21st century, should a milestone of artistry and epic scale be the only criteria to keep it on the American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films List?
For overcoming obstacles in a society that permitted little room for self-confident black entrepreneurs, we are forever indebted to Oscar Micheaux for creating Black Roadshow Cinema.From 1918 onwards, his 44 films were loved by black audiences, without seeking white approval. Given the low earning power of black folks at the time however, he could not earn big bucks like his white counterparts. With a wealthier African-American market like Tyler Perry enjoys today, he could have built a strong movie studio that sustained Hollywood acting, writing and directing talent.
In the absence of a strong black movie studio, most professional black actors in the 1920s-40s earned a living in limited number of Broadway roles or elbowed for nanny or butler roles in Hollywood. 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.
Another horrible legacy was visited upon an infant Black Hollywood. In 1925, Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) arrived. Beginning in 1925, he played in 51 movies, became a Hollywood star to white fans and became a millionaire during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, his ingratiating style of acting was the perfect metaphor to slander one race of people for the entertainment of another.
Viewing his need for work in the most charitable light, one can understand him playing a dim-witted-flunky role to acquire a pile of money otherwise out of reach to Black folks. But by the mid-1930s, the NAACP and black newspapers criticism of his roles grew to a roar. I don’t know how long his studio contract lasted, but by 1936, he had enough money and fan recognition to select roles with more humanity. If he did not get at least one each year to offset the demeaning roles, he could have left for 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. Raised with racial stereotypes and blinded with greed, they failed to imagine African Americans in non-Fetchit, non-servant roles. Only musicals that showcased our “natural rhythm” were a pleasant exception permitted in Hollywood movies. In the latter cases, black musicians, dancers 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. She was capable of more diverse material and had name recognition, but due to racial sentiments, movie studio executives pigeonholed her career as a servant or nanny. With the notable exceptions of Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Hazel Scott as leading ladies in a few movies, many talented black actors like Hattie could not find professionally satisfying work in Hollywood. If not for her marriage to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 194, its doubtful that actress and singer Hazel Scott would have received as many roles.
By the late 1940s however, enough Black actors and musicians were gainfully employed in Hollywood to form a Sugar Hill residential district surrounded by Washington Blvd, Western Avenue, Adams Blvd and Normandie Avenue in the West Adams District (since 1964, I-10 Freeway has sliced that district in half). 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.
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 planned for 1954, she embraced it with both arms. Based on her earlier roles, Austrian director Otto Preminger had a dainty image of Dorothy and initially cast her 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. 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 as Carmen Jones, to become the first African-American to be nominated for Best Actress.
Dorothy Dandridge had the same magnetic beauty and acting verve as her white contemporaries Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor, whose stars were also rising. Unlike them, Dorothy could also sing and dance, so Carmen Jones should have been the break-through role and Best Actress Nomination that opened more doors. She forgot that black actors/actresses had less latitude for career mistakes.
A studio executive asked that Dorothy play something unthinkable for white Best Actress Nominee — play a slave character in a minor role AFTER her nomination. The Tuptim slave role, eventually played by Rita Moreno, was in the epic 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 role and therefore, put his reputation on the line. Carmen Jones was an all-black movie amendable to white audiences. To increase her box-office appeal in subsequent white-dominant movies in the 1950s, the studio chef wanted to gradually increase Dorothy’s acceptance with white audiences. The studio chief thought he was taking the right “grooming” approach for those times.
With hindsight, Dorothy should have negotiated a stronger Supporting Actress-level presence for the Tuptim role to set the stage for better leading roles in her next movies. In that way she could persuade the studio boss to make more money in the long run. Unfortunately, Dorothy listened to her director-turned lover, Otto Preminger, and reneged on playing the Tuptim role. Thus, she committed the ultimate taboo for any actor during the 1950s Studio System — 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 hired, loaned to other studios or blackballed to intermittent B movies and non-Hollywood work.
Dorothy was soon 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 that Lena Horne called, “Our Marilyn Monroe”, would be few and far between.Despite Dorothy Dandridge’s horrible 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 show had star power: Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Frankie Laine, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Billy Preston and Eartha Kitt who worked at scale to support the fledgling program. Despite attracting a modest national audience, the program could not obtain a major national sponsor. 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 had as many movie stars too.
Dorothy Dandridge’s career troubles were shown in full display in her 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, but studio executives feared that interracial relationships on screen would damage box office appeal to white audiences. Consequently, they would not along the actors to kiss, hug or engage in racy dialogue. Those artistic restrictions crippled the movie. Critics justifiably panned the movie and patrons stayed away, which damaged Dorothy’s and Harry’s careers more than it did their white co-stars.
Dorothy’s next project was an Italian-French B movie in 1958 called Tamango. Due to interracial love scenes between Dorothy and the white actor, Tamango was not released in America until 1962. The 4-year delay and B movie quality damaged her box-office appeal. She also appeared another B movie with James Mason in 1958, The Decks Ran Red.
In 1959, studio executives called Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge to play lead roles in the cinematic adaptation of George Gershwin’s demeaning Black musical, Porgy and Bess.Belafonte was unwilling to play the demeaning role of Porgy. He urged Dorothy to do likewise. But Dorothy needed the money for her sick child and hoped that co-leading another A movie would end her blackball days. Under similar threat of studio blackballing, Sidney Poitier played Porgy. Sammy Davis Jr. played his 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’s performance earned a Golden Globe Best Actress Nomination.
In 1959, she married a nightclub owner. 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. After losing money in her husband’s failing business and divorce that followed in 1962, she sold her house to pay back taxes. Shrouded under a disintegrating career, loss of her child to a state institution, broken marriages and 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 the price of being a defiant Black Hollywood pioneer?