A short paper on the history of Black Actors and the Cinema...
“Miss Scarlett, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies!” With these words, Thelma (Butterfly) McQueen endeared herself to our hearts in the movie, Gone With The Wind. We as viewers remember her walking slowly down the stairs to go get the doctor and mumbling under her breath about the incompetence of Miss Scarlett in the process of delivering Miss Melanie’s baby. For this performance, Butterfly McQueen deserved the Best Supporting Actress award at the Oscars and the irony of this performance was although she starred in the movie she could not attend the premiere because it was held in a white’s only movie theater in Atlanta! Bill “Bojangles” Robinson danced into our hearts with tiny Shirley Temple, dancing up and down the stairs in his signature rhythm and style when he was over the age of fifty. The only parts offered to either one of these talented artists were as maids, butlers, slaves, temptresses, or villains during this period of history, is this how society perceived people of color, especially Black performers? Has this view changed much over the years? Are Blacks, Hispanics, or Indians getting roles that showcasing their talents? How are they viewed, as serious actors or simply background? Is it that movies, music, and even literature mirror the discriminatory views of society as a whole, even in this age of supposed non-discriminatory policies? Discrimination is still practiced although on the surface it seems to be gone due to the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and seventies and laws passed by Congress, but nothing has really changed, it has just gone underground, just under the surface ready to explode again. Let us look at the lives of few of the black stars of the past and a few of today and see how they coped with their narrowly defined roles and whether or not they answered the philosophies of G. Carter Woodson, bell hooks, W. E. B. Dubois, and the leaders of the future.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson also had a hard time making it in Hollywood. He started dancing as a young child of three and by the age of twelve, he was dancing and traveling throughout the vaudeville circuit. Robinson made a name for himself on Broadway as a nightclub and musical comedy performer in the Black comedy circuit, it was not until he was fifty that he danced before a white audience. He perfected a dance technique totally his, dancing up and down stairs and also backwards. He was one of a few black entertainers that white audiences enjoyed and he enjoyed dancing for them. His best-known movies were with little Shirley Temple, and in each case and movie, he played a beloved butler in The littlest Colonel and The Littlest Rebel. Although he played the butler or manservant roles and is best known for these roles, he did do Black movies also. In Hooray for Love, he played the mayor of Harlem and in One Mile From Heaven; he played the romantic lead opposite Lena Horne, which was a success for the jitterbug done by him. He financed one film for Black audiences but it was fiscal failure and he did not do any more roles like that. He was a philanthropist, but one not given to accolades and thus many of his works went unknown and undressed. He died in 1947 of heart failure and both blacks as well as whites attended his funeral, held in New York City. Thousands of people lined the streets waiting for his casket to pass. Two of those who eulogized him were Marshall and Jean Stearns who had this to say about Bill Robinson, "To his own people Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps."
Butterfly McQueen acted in movies other then Gone With the Wind, but still had to play maids or slaves even though she was an outstanding actress. In the fifties, she left films altogether our of disgust because the roles for Black women were almost non-existent, she did try theater, but again, the color of her skin and the fact that everyone recognized her as Prissy, she left show business all together. She is quoted as saying this about her roles; “I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn't mind being funny, but I didn't like being stupid.” She left Hollywood, worked many low paying jobs and even worked as a maid at times, she moved all over the country, settling in New York City long enough to earn a BA in Political Science. She starred in a children’s play on television, The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid and for that performance won a television Emmy. Before her death, she moved to Atlanta Georgia in 1996, where she died from burns when her house burned down. She may not have attended the premiere of the movie because it was held in a white’s only theater, but in 1989, at the fiftieth anniversary gala, she was the honored guest of the city of Atlanta and of the movie.
Both of these performers were great, one refused to take based on what she did before and the other accepting of the same roles and yet, broke out to try and appeal to Black audiences also. As bell hooks and G. Carter Woodson try to tell and show their audiences, you don’t have to forget where you came from or how you got out of where you are, but you do have to conscientiously remember where your roots are. Both of these performers did remember, Bill Robinson was known as an easy touch, someone who helped anyone who needed it. He gave of his time and money to help others as well as trying to be a role model for Blacks. Butterfly McQueen gave of herself also, although she gave up acting in movies, she worked hard to obtain her degree and she gave back to her community her strength of character. She had the chance to stay in Hollywood and make money playing the same roles over and over, but instead, moved away to Georgia and New York, taking any job to support her goal of finishing college. She too is a role model, someone that both hooks and Woodson could use to support their arguments for she did not give in to commercialism; she strived for better.
Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor or actress to win an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1940, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Whereas, Prissy portrayed as spiteful and lazy, Hattie McDaniel played the ever vigilant, ever-faithful Mammy who stood by her masters even when finally freed. Hattie McDaniel did not attend the premiere of the movie, and was also offered roles as maids, slaves and servants after her win, she stayed in Hollywood taking any role she could. She once stated in an interview, "I'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid." Although she was offered poor roles, she continued to fight to open doors for blacks and in the 1950s starred in first a radio show called, The Beulah Show and this show became one of the first television shows to feature a black woman in the starring role. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and died in 1952.
From 1940 until 1963, many black men and women were nominated by the Academy for their performances. People like Dorothy Dandridge in 1955 for Carmen Jones who was nominated for best actress, the first to be honored with this nomination. In best supporting rolls, women like Ethel Waters, 1950 for Pinky, Juanita Moore, 1960 in Imitation of Life and in 1959 Sidney Poitier was nominated for his performance in The Defiant ones. in 1948, James Baskett won an honorary Oscar for playing uncle Remus in Song of the South.
It was not until 1963 that another black actor won an academy award, the Best Supporting Actor award was given to Sidney Poitier in the film, Lilies of the Fields. Although he starred in many great movies before and after this award, this was the only time he received the trophy. In the fifties, he starred in movies such as Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958). In the sixties, before he won the academy award he starred in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and Paris Blues (1961) and then in Lilies. All of these, strong performances, all of them academy winning performances and yet, he was nominated for a role that although good, did not stretch his acting talents other then he played a handyman working for a group of white, foreign, East German nuns in Arizona. Was this handyman really his best role and did it deserve the Oscar?
Many critics felt that The Defiant Ones was a much better role, with much more substance and stretch. There are two other films many thought he also should have received a nomination and the Oscar, the first one was In the Heat of the Night and the other is a personal favorite, Who’s Coming to Dinner ( 1968) which was the first movie to break the barrier between Hollywood and the interracial-marriage controversy. Starring along with Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Houghton, this movie shocked the nation and brought attention to a practice if not common, then not unheard of in society. Even when shown today in 2003, it still sparks controversy. It was the first time a Black actor and a White woman kissed on screen. It also opened dialogue about a subject people chose to ignore, can two people from two different cultures, really be happily married in this country. Addressed by Spencer Tracy in the ending speech of the movie, you realized that although love can conquer anything, pressures from outside opinions follow the couple throughout their marriage and will affect their children. The dialogue started in this film and Poitier’s facial reactions told more then the dialogue. This was a movie to be honored and the Academy did, it gave the Oscar to Spencer Tracy, rather the honoring Poitier for his role as the soon to be groom.
This movie ripped down a taboo and was important to society as a whole, however, without the Civil Rights Movement, would this ever be shown in white theaters? There were movie houses in the south that would not show it because of the sensitive subject. It was boycotted by the fanatical, religious right as being against the teachings of the bible, however, it was still shown and although was not considered a blockbuster, it made decent money for the studio. In 2002, the Academy Awards gave Sidney Poitier an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, honoring the many diverse roles he’s played over the years and the contributions he made to the African American community through the years.
Sidney Poitier was born in Miami Florida but weighed only three pounds and was not expected to live. He was the last child born in a family of eight children and dropped out of school after only a year and a half of school, to work on the family tomato farm in the Bahamas during the depression. His father was ill and Poitier felt compelled to help out the family financially. He returned to New York at fifteen and worked at many low-paying, jobs before he stumbled into acting as a profession. Many activists found his characters too rational, too composed, and lacking in the passion they felt was needed to fuel the civil rights movement. Poitier has always disassociated himself from either claim, telling Newsweek in 1957, " ...what I want is the kind of role that makes me feel worthwhile. I will work anywhere - movies, theater, TV - provided the material has texture, quality, something good to say about life." At the age of 84, when most men are retired and relaxing, Sidney Poitier still gets and reads scripts for either acting in or directing. He chooses his projects carefully and does only those he feels are relevant. In the following years, the academy nominated more actors and actresses but although they won in Supporting roles, the most prestigious award for any actor or actress, eluded those actors and actresses of color.
Whoopie Goldberg won best supporting actress in 1991 for her role in Ghost. For best supporting actor, Louis Gossett Jr. won in 1983 for An Officer and a Gentleman, Denzel Washington, 1990, Glory, and Cuba Gooding Jr., 1997, Jerry Maguire. Those actors and actresses that were nominated for best actor and best actresses were: Diana Ross, 1973, Lady Sings the Blues, Cicely Tyson, 1973, Sounder, Diahanna Carroll, 1975, Claudine, Whoopie Goldberg, 1986, The Color Purple, and Angela Bassett, 1994, What’s Love Got to Do With It. The list for best actors is even longer: James Earl Jones, 1971 The Great White Hope, Paul Winfield, 1973, Sounder, Morgan Freeman, 1990, Driving Miss Daisy, Laurence Fishburne, 1994, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Morgan Freeman, 1995, the Shawshank Redemption, and Will Smith, 2002, Ali. In the best supporting actor category: Howard E. Rollins Jr., 1982, Ragtime, Adolph Caesar, 1985, A Soldier’s Story, Morgan Freeman, 1988, Street Smart, Samuel L. Jackson, 1995, Pulp Fiction, and Michael Clarke Duncan, 2000, The Green Mile. Why list all these actors and list the movies and years? If you look down this list, you will notice the kinds of role these black actors did, Some played criminals, some played prostitutes, some played scam artists such as Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost, the movie that gave black actors the most nominations was The Color Purple which while none of the characters were truly criminal, the movie portrayed a lower class family and its struggles and the strength of one woman through the years. Some played servants and all were to a degree, dysfunctional. Which brings us to the final actor highlighted here, Denzel Washington, the first black artist to win the coveted best actor award in 2002 for his role in Training Day.
Denzel Washington is a new breed of black actor, one that along with Sidney Poitier is choosy about what roles he takes. Born in 1954, his mother was a hairdresser and his father, a minister but at a young age, he knew he wanted to act. He graduated from Fordham University in 1977 with a BA in journalism but instead of working as a journalist, he moved to San Francisco and won a scholarship to the American conservatory Theater. His Hollywood break came in a television series called St. Elsewhere where he learned to perfect his art.
He starred in a few of unmemorable movies until he won the role of Steve Bilko, and anti-apartheid activist in Cry Freedom (1988), movie for which he was nominated for best supporting actor. Then came Glory (1990), and his first nomination in the best actor category. One of his best movies was one that he didn’t get a nomination, the movie was based on a true person, Malcolm X. A strong performance by Washington brought to life again this man of many faces. Washington played in with sensitivity and with pride and it showed that to both critics and audiences alike. For the first time, Hollywood took notice of a black hero, strangely enough, not Martin Luther King, but one that grew to accept the idea that violence might not be the answer to blacks obtaining their civil rights, but for a long time, Malcolm X felt it was the only way blacks would win. Washington captured that conundrum with his performance. This led to another movie in which he played a lawyer taking on a case of discrimination against a lawyer with AIDS.
Philadelphia, thought to be one of his best teamed him with the winner of best actor that year, Tom Hanks. Washington played a ambulance-chasing lawyer who was noted for taking any case, but in the beginning he would not take this case because of his fear of homosexuals. Throughout this movie, you can see his growth and eventual love of the character played by Tom Hanks. This powerful performance by both award-winning actors should have been nominated, but Washington was not nominated for this role. But because of his work in this and other movies, he became known as a leading man and his name alone on a marquis almost “Guaranteed a film’s success. He is also among the highest paid.” then came the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony.
Nominated for the best actor category was not new to Washington. This was not the first time for him, he was nominated once before for Glory, but this time was different. He was nominated for a role that was totally unlike any he played before. This time, he was playing a rogue cop, and as one reporter stated, “Washington was so compelling as a corrupt, crazed officer of the law that it was downright frightening.” Although this role was one that was new to Washington, was it a role new to black actors?
As stated previously, roles for black actors and actresses are of a narrow scope, with most playing subservient roles or roles of people that either committed crimes or were victims of their own bad choices. Woodson and hooks both felt that Blacks needed to look forward and ahead and yet not forget where they came from, they both felt that the talented ten needed to be role models for the future, but what kind of role models are a rogue cop, a prostitute, a scam artists, or maids and butlers showing the youth of today? One of the things noticed about what is offered to blacks in the cinema, have you seen even one offered a role that Gary Cooper played such as in High Noon, or a Spencer Tracy role such as Boy’s Town? Why don’t you see a black man playing a role like James Bond, or Indiana Jones? Black women should be offered roles like the one’s played by Sally Fields or Glenn Close, positive role models but instead, they are in roles like in The Color Purple where violence and poverty are visualized.
Times have not changed since The Clansman, blacks are becoming more visual, but the parts have changed very little and they still mirror what the dominant society views as the role of people of color. Until we change that attitude, we are giving the youth of today permission to be gangsters, and permission to feel the way they do.
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