To continue my discussion of racism and black history, this next installment deals with show business, which I know something about. I shall begin with some personal history.
I recall my first incident of racism awareness during my first year at Central Junior High School in South Bend, when I tried out for a part in the school’s production of Tom Sawyer. There wasn’t that much of a turnout, so I should have had as much chance to play one of the leads as any of the white auditioners. I had already been in several plays at my elementary school, Linden, but since it was all-black, racial casting was never an issue.
Most of the white children in our neighborhood were Polish Catholics and attended parochial school or one of the other several grade schools in the area, so I never questioned why neighbors Billy Kerestury and Joey Konieczny did not attend Linden with me. I learned later, however, that it was no coincidence that Linden was all-black. It was because of intentional de facto segregation. The school board was not called on that realization until the fall of 1965, but I was long gone by then.
Fortunately, though, in spite of that fact, we did have fine and efficient teachers, both black and white, at Linden with proper and sufficient textbooks and supplies, and I did receive a good, well-rounded education. Central, on the other hand, was more across-the-board racially, and there were as many white students as there were black. Despite my considerable, prior stage experience, Mr. John Toth, the white director, did not see fit to cast me as Tom or any of his immediate friends. I was relegated to a very minor, nameless part in the play. I don’t remember even having any lines to recite. I was basically an extra, running across the stage, moving props and scenery, that sort of thing.
I do, however, remember, as the final indignity, the billing I received in the printed “Playbill”: “A Small, Colored Child,” I suppose, to distinguish me from the nameless small, white children in the play? Why didn’t he just name me “Little Rastus Pickaninny” and be done with it?! It’s additionally disrespectful, due to the fact that I wasn’t even small. I was 13 and already a big boy. I expect what he meant was, small, in the sense of insignificant.
Another incident of the theatrical sort occurred a couple of years after I had moved to NYC. I had already done two shows prior for Club Bené dinner theater in Morgan, New Jersey (Man of La Mancha and Finian’s Rainbow) and was auditioning for the lead in their next production, Two by Two, a musical by Richard Rodgers and based on the Noah’s Ark fable. The director of this new show, Peter Jablonski, I already knew, having worked with him in the last production in his capacity as stage manager. So he knew my work, and I thought that he liked me and respected me.
But after my audition, he called me aside and had the nerve to tell me to my face that even though I had the talent and ability to play the part, “People would not be ready for a black Noah,” and therefore did not hire me. Which people? I doubt very seriously that this guy went all over New Jersey to take a pre-survey asking people if they would be offended or outraged to see a nondescript Biblical character being portrayed by a young, attractive black man. That’s bullshit anyway, because Eddie “Rochester” Anderson [1905-1977] had already portrayed Noah way back in 1936 in The Green Pastures, so people should have been more than “ready” by this time. This guy couldn’t just come out and admit his own racial bigotry in his decision, but chose to pass the buck and blame it all on unknown strangers. After that slap in the face, I didn’t want to work with him, even if he had offered me another part in the show, which he didn’t.
Just the year before, I chose to stand up for my dignity during the staging of Club Bené’s Finian’s Rainbow in 1974. There is a scene in the show where the bigoted character, Senator Rawkins, tries to force the black sharecroppers off their property and from their homes. The director wanted Armelia McQueen and me (there were only “two” of us in the cast; this was a real budget production) just to slink off stage without any protest. You know, like, “Yassah, Boss, we’s gwine.” I told him that I would not do that. It was too degrading. I refused to be disrespected like that. At 26, I was already exerting my racial pride and awareness. Besides, the heroine, Sharon McLonergan, intervenes on our behalf before the fact, so there was no need to do that anyway. The bit was not even in the script, it was only the director’s idea. He just wanted to demonstrate how whites always have the upper hand in any given situation. But I was not going for it. Homey don’t play that! He did comply after all and let me have my way. I had come to the realization even then that people will try to get away with what you let them get away with. I could have gone along with his suggestion and not said anything, but I wasn’t having it. How will they ever learn, if you don’t call them on their shit?
Although it’s gotten better in recent years, white people really used to do a number on us in the entertainment field. First of all, we weren’t even allowed to perform on the stage until after the turn of the previous century. And then even when they did, we could appear only alone or with other blacks, never with any white performers. The popular art form of the day was minstrel shows, performed by white actors in blackface makeup. They portrayed blacks as foolish, childlike creatures, singing and dancing and making fools of themselves to entertain their white masters. Negroes were considered incapable of playing themselves, or rather, the white man’s idea of themselves. Who could better bring to life the stereotyped white conception of the Negro more accurately than a white actor in blackface? But why?
Babes on Broadway (1941), directed by Busby Berkeley, is another one of those “Let’s-Put-on-a-Show” musicals starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. They and their friends are trying to decide what to do for the finale of their show, so they all come up the idea of a minstrel production number. They are then shown putting on their blackface makeup and singing so gleefully as they are doing it. “Oh, golly gee, what a joy it is to be black!“
Three years earlier in Everybody Sing (1938) Judy goes to an audition for a show in disguise so that the attending director would not recognize her. The disguise that she chose is a black-faced pickaninny with a beribboned wig which makes her look like Farina from Our Gang! She trucks and buck-and-wings and dumbs down her speech. I don’t know how Judy felt about blacks, but she certainly seemed not to have any qualms about parodying them on film. I think that it’s quite shameful that she would do that, and several times, too, during her early career. I don’t believe that even then directors could make actors do something that they did not want to do.
I don’t understand why they were pretending to be black in the first place. Were they trying to make fun of us or were we supposed to consider it an honorary tribute? If imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, don’t do us any favors. It must be a mockery, because if they cared anything about us, they wouldn’t have found the need to distort our image like they did. That’s not how we would have played ourselves, voluntarily. And then when blacks themselves started performing in the minstrel shows, they, too, had to do it in blackface, I assume in order to maintain their pre-established image of us.
That’s just like in the movie and Broadway show Victor/Victoria, where a woman is pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. By making a black man perform in blackface, he is a Negro pretending to be a white man pretending to be a Negro. Go figure. That’s about as ridiculously redundant, too, as the drag queen I once saw impersonating drag queen RuPaul!
But my question remains, Why? Who told those black artists that they had to perform in blackface? Was it, “If you want to perform, that is how you have to do it.”? What, just because you say so? Who the fuck are you to make such a demand? Why must we always obey a white man’s every bidding? Why can’t we call our own shots? Let us do our own thing, thank you.
But maybe there is an underlying motivation behind it all. Maybe it was their unspoken desire to appear black. They could satisfy their preoccupation with darkening their skin without admitting it out loud. They must have been doing it for themselves; they certainly were not doing it for our benefit. And they must have enjoyed it, or they wouldn’t have been doing it! Of course, they wouldn’t do that ordinarily. This was merely costume makeup strictly for entertainment purposes, you see.
In Holiday Inn (1942), while celebrating Lincoln’s Birthday, star and inn proprietor, Bing Crosby, chose to do the tribute to Abe with the ensemble all appearing in blackface, I suppose to depict the slaves of 1860. Why would we want to be reminded of that period in history? Costar Marjorie Reynolds comes out to do her number in a guise similar to Judy’s getup in Everybody Sing. I thought, Who is that supposed to be? Nobody in real life looks or dresses like that. And then, so that Marjorie would not be recognized again, Bing suggests that she do blackface for the Valentine’s Day show two days later. That’s why I contend that they must have liked doing that, because in every case, it was a desired choice to do so. They certainly didn’t have to.
What else I thought was strange in that same film is maid/cook/housekeeper Louise Beavers and her two young children singing a verse of the Lincoln song (by Irving Berlin). I wonder what she and the kids thought about the whole minstrel routine. Did the director even ask their opinion or just didn’t care what they thought about it? And although blacks were allowed to work in behind-the-scenes jobs at the Inn, there weren’t any there as patron guests, there to dine, dance and enjoy the shows.
When the executive producers were casting Watermelon Man (1970), in which a bigoted white man turns black overnight, they were considering only a white actor to play the lead role, but writer-director Melvin Van Peebles suggested that since he is white for only the first fifteen minutes of the film, it would be more practical to make a black actor white for a few minutes than for a white actor to do the whole rest of the film in blackface. So Godfrey Cambridge got the part. Then they wanted the character to turn back white again at the end of the picture—they didn’t like the idea of the unfortunate fate of his remaining black—but Van Peebles wanted him to stay black. So he proposed a compromise. He would film two endings reflecting both results. But when the final edition was presented, the ending where Godfrey is supposed to turn back white, somehow couldn’t be found (hmm, I wonder what happened to it?), which meant that they had to use the other version. So Melvin got his way after all.
Singer/comedian Bert Williams [1874?-1922] was one (if not the first) of those black entertainers who was compelled to carry on the tradition of minstrelsy by performing in blackface. I suppose it could have started out as a disguise, since blacks were still not allowed to appear on stage as themselves. But this did give Williams a chance to modify black men’s image by incorporating his own personality and artistry into his minstrel character. When Williams later teamed up with George Walker [1872-1911], they discarded their blackface makeup altogether, billed themselves as “Two Real Coons” and enjoyed a successful partnership for 15 years. Choosing that particular billing was really making a political statement. Instead of those fraudulent impostors that whites had been used to seeing, now you have here the genuine item. They resurrected the Cakewalk in one of their routines, and it subsequently became a very popular dance craze, especially among whites. The dance itself came out of slave times, when the slaves would parody the highfalutin ways and manners of their masters. Of course, the clueless whites did not realize that they were being poked fun at.
Williams and Walker produced and starred in the first all-black musical on Broadway entitled In Dahomey, and in 1910 Williams became the first and only black performer with the Ziegfeld Follies. His hiring did not sit well with some of the company’s other featured acts, however. They approached Mr. Ziegfeld and threatened to quit if he didn’t get rid of the nigger. Ziegfeld stood his ground and called their bluff. He told them that if they left, he could replace any one of them in a minute, but not the very one that they were asking him to get rid of. Good for him! He apparently considered Williams to be a special addition to his production.
Another story tells of Williams going into a New York bar once and asking to be served a drink. The bartender, so as not to refuse Williams’ patronage—I mean, after all, this was not the South—told Williams, “All right, but it will cost you $1000.” Without protest or missing a single beat, Williams reached in his pocket, got out his wallet and laid five one thousand dollar bills on the bar and said, “Give me five drinks.” So there! Although I can appreciate his intent, I don’t like his showing off like that. That bartender disrespects Williams, and then Williams rewards him by giving him $5000? If he didn’t want to serve me, I would have just left and took my business elsewhere. It would be that guy’s loss. No skin off my nose! You don’t want my money? Well, fuck you, then!
Now I don’t know if this happened to Williams that particular time, but so he would not go away thinking that he got over on whitey, let’s throw in a little humiliation, why don’t we? It has been reported that the rare occasions that a black man was served at a bar, as soon as he finished his drink and turned to leave, the bartender would smash the glass he used in front of him and the other patrons, who all would then guffaw. That was saying, “No white man will ever drink out of that glass again!” Who would even know if he didn’t tell them? Apparently, washing the glass is not good enough. Nigger cooties are indelible, I suppose.
I finally got to see D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation in its entirety a few years ago. The film portrays the nightriders and the Ku Klux Klan as moralistic heroes and the saviors of American society. In fact, the original title upon its initial release was entitled The Clansman, from the novel upon which it was based, but was subsequently changed to The Birth of a Nation, this new title being a cover for “The Rebirth of White Supremacy.”
The “blacks” in the film are portrayed as either ignorant oafs or brutal, savage rapists, whose only raison d’etre is lusting after white women. But get this. The black characters in the film are all played by white actors in blackface! It was so obvious, too. To me, they looked unmistakably Caucasian; they just had dark makeup on their faces. You see, by using white actors they could depict us any way they want to and perpetuate their own desired image of us. And we had no say-so in the matter.
One of the film’s most controversial scenes depicts a “black” brute chasing a young white woman, with the intent to ravage her. When he catches up with her at the edge of a precipice, she pulls away from him and jumps to her death. The bitch would rather die than allow herself to be touched by a black man! Of course, that’s just wishful thinking on the part of the director and other white males. I contend that most white women feel quite differently about the situation. If truth be told, they are the ones who are always lusting after us, not we them. For all of the white women in this country who are married to black men, even in the South, apparently they didn’t run for the hills when their husbands made their interest toward them known, did they? I certainly have had my share of white women coming on to me, and I ain’t even interested! The villainous predator is promptly apprehended and lynched, because if he hadn’t been chasing that poor girl, she wouldn’t have had to kill herself, would she? It’s all his fault. Kill him!
When the film opened in Boston, there was a major protest by the NAACP and a large group of blacks to ban it, but as always happens, this only created more interest and curiosity about the film. Although the film stands out as a paragon of great early filmmaking, its racist subject matter still causes major controversy, even to this day. It also inspired the Ku Klu(x Klan to resurface to its full potential, after having been pretty much dormant for the prior last half century or so.
There was a very popular minstrel character called Jim Crow. Let me tell you how he came about. It was 1828 when a white, blackface stage comedian named Thomas D. Rice [1808-1860], who billed himself as an “Ethiopian Delineator,” had seen a crippled, black man dancing in town one day. So he took the man’s tattered clothes and that night on stage, did an exaggerated imitation of him. The audience ate it up. Then literally hundreds of men started doing the same thing. They tore up their clothes, effected an exaggerated speech dialect, and the Jim Crow routine was born. Eventually, “jim crow” became the epitome of White America’s image of the black man, although it was the whites who created those very images that became associated with us. The broken, incoherent speech, the shuffling, the rolling of the eyes, even the term itself was created by a white man. See how they do us? Jim Crow also refers to the discriminatory laws against black Americans.
This “jimcrovian” image was perpetuated for decades. The black man in films was usually being depicted as either a lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing, a formidable, threatening buck or a dim-witted buffoon, while the black woman was usually the sexless, domestic mammy figure, who was always dark-skinned, by the way, the darker and more overweight the better. These undesirable images were presented that way on purpose so as to prevent any kind of attraction to the black actors by whites on the set or white folks of the general public. The men were either dismissed or feared and the zaftig mammy maids posed no sexual threat to the white women in the cast.
Your more svelte, lighter-skinned actresses were harder to cast in mixed films, unless she played a cigarette girl, coat check girl or chanteuse in a nightclub. This type fared much better in all-black films, but even then they usually played entertainers or hoochie-mamas. But they’re with their own kind, at least, so it’s all right. If the men weren’t playing their usual characters, they would then be employed in menial or manual labor jobs, like elevator operators, shoe shiners, janitors, porters and train conductors. Since “black” still carried with it a less-than-positive connotation in the early days, in those race films with a musical theme, they would use phrases for the light-skinned singers, like Lena Horne, “The Bronze Nightingale,” and their shows were billed as “Sepia Scandals.”
Fine actors like Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Louise Beavers, Rex Ingram and Ethel Waters always tried at least to instill and maintain some degree of dignity within the limited confines of their characters. One exception, though, was Stepin Fetchit [1892-1985]. I don’t like to be judgmental, but he was a disgrace, in my opinion—bugging his eyes, shuffling and stuttering out ungrammatical, unintelligible inanities. The sad thing about that is, it was really all a clever act. Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (Fetchit’s real name) was not a simpleton at all, and he certainly did not have to sell out like that.
I saw Fetchit in a 1935 Charlie Chan movie. It takes place in Egypt, and I don’t know who his character is supposed to be. But he’s doing his usual slow, slurred speech and being scared of everything. Why is he even there, other than to be just your basic comic relief and object of ridicule? Why couldn’t he have played an archaeologist, scientist or Chan’s assistant, perhaps? I mean, he is there with the others. Make yourself useful.
As a result, though, Perry became a multi-millionaire in the thirties. But I’m sorry, they couldn’t have paid me enough money to degrade myself like that on film. But I suppose that the offer of big money will make some people do almost anything. Then in 1970 Perry had the unmitigated gall to try to sue CBS for “defamation of character” for using clips of his movies as examples of black caricature in American films. Well, duh! How are they defaming his character when he already did that himself? All they were doing was showing the existing material. It was too late then for regret. Didn’t he ever consider that his past actions would come back to haunt him someday? Film is forever. I guess he didn’t expect to outlive his legacy. He did not win his suit, by the way.
The satirical Hollywood Shuffle (1987), written and directed by Robert Townsend (my cousin), and one of my favorite movies, deals with black casting stereotypes and finding decent work for black actors in films. Robert plays an aspiring actor who is up for a supporting role in a low-budget film. The character for this film comes off as a modern-day Stepin Fetchit, dragging around and slow jive-talking. Two of his lines are, “I ain’t be got no weapon” and “I killded him.” The script (in the movie) was written by a white man, of course. At his callback, one of the other guys who is up for the same part, warns Bobby, “This is bullshit. You know that whoever plays this clown character is going to be blasted by the media image groups. I hear that they are going to boycott the film. I’d hate to be in your shoes, man.”
Well, Bobby does get the part, and although his family is glad for him, they are also ashamed that he is playing such a demeaning character. During the first day of shooting his big scene, Bobby has a change of heart and decides that he will not be a sellout after all, so he quits and walks off the set. The director says to the actors still in attendance, “So now we need somebody to play Jimmy.” Remember the pooh-pooh naysayer guy who was trying to discourage Bobby from taking the part? He immediately jumps up and says, “I’ll do it!” So, you see, whatever the part or action is, there is always somebody willing to do it.
Only a little less embarrassing was Willie Best [1916-1962], who was known for several years as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat,” the name of one of the characters he played, and also as “Little Stepin Fetchit.“ I actually liked Willie, though. Once he stopped “sleepin’ ‘n’ eatin’” and started taking on better roles, I realized what a good actor he really was. One of my favorite performances of his was in The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope. Willie is Bob’s funny sidekick companion and really his costar, except for Paulette Goddard, who serves as Bob’s romantic interest. Although a comedy, the film is a smart horror mystery as well, with murders, ghosts, and a haunted castle. Willie’s part is integral to the story, and he even foils the villainous killer at the end. His encounter with a scary zombie is especially hilarious. In Murder on a Honeymoon (1935), a Hildegard Withers mystery with Edna May Oliver, Willie plays an estate’s groundskeeper who discovers a dead body and then assists Miss Withers in solving the murder.
Another dark-skinned actor, whose real name was Fred Toones [1906-1962], was often billed as “Snowflake”! Can they stop? Although he made over 200 films, he was always cast in service roles, like porters and bootblacks and janitors and elevator operators and such. Mantan Moreland [1901-1973] (Man tan?!) worked a lot in films, but always as the frightened, bug-eyed, comic relief.
One female actor was appropriately named Maidie Norman [1912-1998], because maids and servants are all that she ever played, at least in Hollywood films. She got to play more of a variety of roles on television, and she worked constantly. She is the one that Bette Davis as Jane Hudson murders in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). No surprise there. I learned that she rewrote her dialogue so that it would not sound stereotypical as it usually does, and I commend her for that. I was surprised, too, to see her in Torch Song (1953) playing personal secretary to tough-as-nails Broadway star Joan Crawford. But I’m not letting you off that easily, Maidie, dear. There are a couple of references to Joan in the film about her dinner plans, which implies that Maidie also serves as Joan’s cook! I suppose that’s all right. Everybody has to eat, don’t they? Wait! Maybe Maidie is also Joan’s “wife.” They just didn’t tell us that. Hmm. Maidie (her real name!) was no dummy. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, and taught acting and black studies at UCLA.
It’s so unfortunate that all those talented black actors of that period were resigned to play only those often demeaning, one-dimensional roles for so many years, but I don’t blame the actors themselves. If they wanted to work, it’s what they had to do. They were constantly criticized for selling out, but they couldn’t turn down the generous salaries that they were offered for these roles. Hattie McDaniel [1895-1952] once said in an interview, “The only choice permitted us is either to be servants for $7.00 a week or portray them for $700.00 a week.” (And she did both.) “So I chose to play a maid rather than be one.” (You go, girl!) Do you blame her? So instead of getting on the actors, those pooh-pooh naysayers should have been challenging the System that was compelling them to do that.
Ms. McDaniel’s maid characters, at least, usually would not take any guff from her white employers. She often sassed them, “threw shade” and disobeyed them in her films, which always lent a comedic aspect to her roles. In George Washington Slept Here (1942), for example, Hattie is maid and cook to Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan, who buy a dilapidated house in the country and move into it. When they all arrive there together, they start loading all these heavy bags and boxes onto “Hester” to carry into the house. She says to Jack, “What am I, a truck?!”
In the comedy-murder mystery The Mad Miss Manton (1938), Hattie plays Hilda, hired maid of wacky socialite Melsa Manton, played by Barbara Stanwyck. During one scene in which Melsa is entertaining some of her friends at her home, one of them asks Hilda to bring her something from the kitchen, and Hilda barks at her, “The kitchen is closed for the night!“ When her employer admonishes her with, “Miss Beverly is our guest,“ Hilda snaps back, “I didn’t ask her up.“ Later, out of annoyed exasperation, Miss Manton orders Hilda to throw a pitcher of cold water in Henry Fonda’s face, which Hilda boldly complies to do. I guess the directors must have felt a bit guilty. “If we’re going to make this wonderfully-talented actor constantly play these typecast parts, I suppose we could let her have the upper hand once in a while.”
If you happen to see the film, notice in the end credits that Hattie’s last name is misspelled. They added an “S”. They also did it the year before in Saratoga (1937). Maybe there are others, too, I don’t know. Conversely, the “S” was left off of Louise Beavers’ name in the credits of The Facts of Life (1960). I find that to be inexcusable, that whoever was responsible didn‘t know or care what their names were, and that nobody caught the mistake before the final print. I noticed it right away. Why didn’t anybody else? As with all the actors under contract, the studio bosses owned Hattie as well, and she had to do what they told her to. They even forbade her to lose any weight, so as to keep her fat and sexless.
As a young woman growing up in Denver, Colorado, Hattie performed for years as a singer (she enjoyed much success as a very popular blues singer), dancer and comedienne. She also wrote songs and plays and shows for her own production company in which she performed vaudeville, Shakespeare and other dramatic roles. While in Hollywood, though, she rarely got to display the full range of her talent. All they would ever let her do is play a domestic all the time. Now there were also white maids in many films at the same time, but of course with white actors, they could play other parts as well. Even Margaret Hamilton played house servants during her film career.
In The Wizard of Oz (1939) Hattie could have played the Wicked Witch or even Glinda, for that matter. She could have won her Oscar for that just as well as the other one. The film takes place in a fantasy world, so why not a black witch? Then I suppose Dorothy’s line, “Oh, I beg your pardon, but I’ve never seen a beautiful witch before“ would have been changed to, “…I’ve never seen a big ol’ fat, black witch before.“ No, I don’t suppose you have. Not then anyway. To show you how times have changed, now on TV’s “American Horror Story: Coven” Gabourey Sidibé is exactly that, with Kathy Bates playing her Southern maid! But even before that, the very dark and corpulent Mabel King played the bad witch, Evilene, in both the original Broadway production and the subsequent movie version of The Wiz.
Hattie did get to do a featured song-and-dance number in the Warner Bros. revue film, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), she sang in Show Boat (1936), in Saratoga, The Great Lie (1941) and got to do a duet with Will Rogers in Judge Priest (1934), but five times out of the hundreds of films in which she appeared is hardly exemplary. There are probably only a handful of films that Judy Garland did not sing in, for example.
Of course, Gone With the Wind is now considered one the greatest films ever made. But it was not easy getting it made, and during its two years of production (1937-39) it was fraught with controversy. When the novel by Margaret Mitchell was published in 1936, it sold over a million copies in its first six months of release and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Being a Southern belle born and raised in Atlanta, Mitchell wrote her book with a definite pro-Confederate tone, and she even heralded the Ku Klux Klan as the noble defender of the white South during the post-Civil War years. Many were afraid, and rightly so, that the movie would turn out to be another The Birth of a Nation. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, allowed many interested parties (media journalists, NAACP and black public relations representatives) to step in to advise and oversee the project in order to gain permission and acceptance from the black community to proceed.
The greatest point of contention and biggest concern was about script approval. They wanted to make sure that all offensive material involving the black characters was omitted, including and especially that dreaded “N-word.” Although Selznick fought them on this point, up to actual filming, he finally conceded. Even if they hadn’t backed down, it was reported that Hattie McDaniel, for one, had simply refused to deliver lines containing the offensive epithet. (Good for her!) Whereas the book had “nigger” numerous times throughout, you will notice that the film does not use it once, and there are no Klan scenes either.
I learned that the original script had a scene of the slave character of Prissy, played by Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen [1911-1995], gleefully eating a watermelon. She refused to do that, and it was excluded. I am so glad. Tiring of her Hollywood image, Butterfly retired from films in 1947 and worked at various jobs in between occasional theatrical engagements. She did return to the big screen in 1970 and worked in television, even winning an Emmy Award in 1980 for an ABC After-School Special. At the age of 64, Ms. McQueen received a bachelor’s degree in political science. She died as a result of severe burns when her clothes caught fire while she was trying to light a kerosene heater, burning down her cottage as well. She was 84.
Black veteran actor Lennie Bluett [1919-2016] once reported that when he worked in Gone With the Wind, being not from the South, he was horrified to find signs on the Porto-Potties for the cast and crew which designated “For Colored Only” and “For Whites Only.” He sought out Clark Gable on the set and told him that there was a problem that concerned him and the other blacks in the cast. “They gotta get those signs down or we’re all gonna walk. You can’t get 400 Mexicans out here to look like black people.“ Bluett then took Gable to show him the signs, who became infuriated. He contacted the director, Victor Fleming, and demanded that the signs be taken down immediately or he would walk off the picture, too. They readily complied. This is another instance of standing up for yourself and not letting somebody get away with an injustice.
I am sure that Selznick appreciated appeasing all concerned parties when his film became the huge success that it was, and still is, and even went on to win Best Picture that year. Now thinking that he was such a big deal, at least in Hollywood, Selznick immodestly suggested to his publicity chief that a major university should be invited to bestow an honorary doctorate degree on him. When no major institution could be persuaded to comply, Selznick allegedly responded, “Well, find a minor university who will give me a degree. I’ll be satisfied with that.” Can he stop?!
Things worked out well for Hattie, too. You know, I still find it quite surprising that as early as 1939, with Hollywood being as racist and homophobic as it was (and still is in some instances), that they would not only nominate but actually award an Oscar to a dark-skinned Negress who was rumored to be a sapphist as well! How is this for more studio control? They actually wrote Hattie’s acceptance speech, in the unlikely event that she would win. They wouldn’t even allow her to express her own thoughts. It’s obvious, at least to me, when you hear it, that a white person had a hand in it, especially the part about her being “a credit to [her] race.” No proud, self-respecting Person-of-Color would ever say such a thing. At least, I hope not. That is strictly Caucasian patronization, as if we need evaluation. What that says is that this person is not your ordinary, everyday Negro nobody, but special, someone we don’t have to be ashamed of. They never say that about themselves, of course. Like, was Katharine Hepburn a credit to her race, for example? Anyway, I think it’s white folks who need to have their credit constantly validated, not us!
When the film had its world premiere in Atlanta in December 1939, none of the black actors from the movie were invited to attend the opening. Furthermore, the Atlanta city officials objected to Hattie McDaniel’s photograph appearing alongside those of her white costars in the film’s souvenir program, so producer Selznick bowed to pressure and had it removed. And although Hattie was allowed to attend the Awards ceremony the next year–she was to win after all–they made her sit at her own table off to the side, rather than letting her mingle with her fellow actors.
As everything happens for a reason, this Award brought with it political ramifications as well. Hattie’s Oscar was a testimony to the truly democratic nature of a society where “people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color.” (Isn’t that white of them?) During such uncertain times, it became a symbol of the difference between the egalitarian ideal of the United States and the totalitarian threat of Nazi Germany. So why did they wait 24 years before they did it again, that is, give another Academy Award to a black person? More on that in a bit. Hattie was only 57 when she died of cancer in 1952.
Since there apparently were enough parts to go around, Louise Beavers [1902-1962] would get some the roles that Hattie McDaniel was unavailable for and vice versa. In No Time for Comedy (1940) Midwestern hayseed, Jimmy Stewart, writes a play that is being produced on Broadway. There is a part in the play for a maid, so the leading lady, played by Rosalind Russell, gets her own personal maid, “Clementine,” played by Louise Beavers, to do the part. So she is playing both an actor and a maid in the film. But my question is, which was not discussed in the film, was Clementine being paid more for playing a maid in a Broadway show than being a real one in her off time? Just like Hattie, Ms. Beavers also worked as a real maid before she starting acting as one.
Lena Horne [1917-2010] proved to be rather a rebel herself. She didn’t work as much as she could have in Hollywood, because she flatly refused to play those demeaning roles and received a lot of flak from the other black actors for doing so. Her beauty and talent were recognized, but the movie moguls didn’t quite know what to do with her. Her musical numbers had nothing to do with the integral plot of the films, therefore they could easily be taken out when the films were shown in Southern venues. Lena hated Hollywood, but she had a 7-year contract with MGM to fulfill. She did get to play some leading roles in the few films that featured an all-black cast, like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky (both 1943), but even that film (the latter) was subject to white racist control.
Lena is introduced in the film taking a bath while singing a song. The studio’s “production code” had the number cut before the film’s release because they felt that an attractive Negro woman in a bubble bath was much too risqué. Please help me to find the rationale in that. Those hypocrites didn’t seem to object to Joan Crawford’s bathtub scene four years earlier in The Women or Lana Turner the year before in Ziegfeld Girl. Is it Lena’s fault if lecherous, white men get turned on by her beauty? I guess they would prefer that movie audiences think that black women never bathe and are always funky and dirty. Thankfully, the current DVD version of the film has that scene reinserted, as it is no big deal today.
Lena longed to show her acting skills. Why couldn’t her bosses, she reasoned, cast her in a regular film in a supporting role as somebody’s assistant or best friend or femme fatale, parts that black actors get to play today and no one thinks anything of it? Lena’s greatest disappointment, though, was not being allowed to play Julie in the 1951 remake of Show Boat. She was originally considered for the role, or she thought she was, having already performed one of Julie’s songs in an earlier film (more on that later), but when it came time for the actual casting, they gave the part to her friend, Ava Gardner.
You see, that production code (aka racist white men) ostensibly forbade any type of interracial romance on the screen. That’s why the 1959 film version of Imitation of Life (which I will discuss in more detail in a moment), I Passed for White (1960) and Pinky (1949), which all involve fair-skinned black women passing for white, all employed white actors to play the main character, because the films include implied miscegenation. I’ve said that life imitates art. Ironically, in the story (Show Boat) the character Julie herself is a singer/actor who is banned from performing on the showboat with the other white actors, when it is discovered that she is part-Negro. One would hope that so-called well-meaning people would make an attempt to right past injustices when they have the power to do so.
During a USO appearance at a training camp in the South during World War II, Lena refused to perform when she discovered that German prisoners-of-war had been seated in the front rows while black American soldiers had been relegated to the back. She complained to the local NAACP as well as to the Hollywood sponsors of her tour, who then refused to pay her. From that point on Lena paid her own way whenever she performed for black troops.
Jazz pianist/vocalist Nina Simone [1933-2003] had a similar experience when she was giving her first piano recital in 1945 in Tryon, North Carolina. Her parents were sitting in the front row of the concert hall when they were forced to go to the back of the house, to make room for some white folks. Nina “jumped man” and told them that she would not perform until her parents were let back into their front row seats.
Harry Belafonte, too, discovered, when he spent two weeks in the Navy brig with other black sailors and some German POWs, that things were not equal. The white prisoners weren’t required to do any work, they were served better food, and they got to wear their own clothes, rather than those rough, prison-issued uniforms. In matters of race relations, even the white wartime enemy were treated with more respect than our own black defenders. These black soldiers must have felt that they were fighting on the wrong side. They were grateful at least to Lena for now having a movie star whose picture they could put up in their lockers and such, as they wouldn’t dare display any white actresses.
Lena was given a classy musical number, “Love,” in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), which was considered by many to be one of the highlights of the entire film. When it played in Birmingham, Alabama, the composer of the song, Hugh Martin, a Birmingham boy himself, flew there from Hollywood to attend the premiere. He took his entire family, eager for them to hear Lena sing his song. But the number was gone! Puzzled, Martin asked the theater manager what happened and was told, “Oh, down here we don’t want to see a lot of niggers writhing around.” (?!) How does one person constitute “a lot”? And Lena doesn’t “writhe” when she sings any more than do the white stars of the film. What they really mean is that they don’t want to see “any,“ unless we are catering to them in some way. And of course, that guy was speaking for every person who lives in the South, as if they all are of the same mind and sentiment. He is lying anyhow, because they do so enjoy seeing black people writhe around, or dance, in other words.
Martin was devastated by the omission, but I don’t know why he should be so surprised. Being from there, he should have known how things were. Similarly, in Memphis, Tennessee the scene was excised with the declaration, “No film shall appear in a Memphis theater as where a Negro is shown mingling with whites, unless, of course, the Negro is in the role of a maid or butler, and then their every spoken word must be prefaced with ‘Sir or Ma‘am.’” The censors axed a scene in The Sailor Takes a Wife (1946) that showed Robert Walker tipping his hat toward Eddie Anderson. They can’t allow a white man to show any kind of respect to a black person. What is their problem?!
This same Hugh Martin served as Lena’s vocal coach for a time. One day he asked her to look at one of his songs, “That’s How I Love the Blues.” Reading through the lyrics, Lena came across the line, “Like a darkie loves cornbread.” In his Southern naivete, Martin thought that it was an acceptable word. Seeing Lena gasp and clutch her pearls, he then realized his error. But I don’t even buy his feigned innocent intent, because despite his word choice, what is his point anyway? Is he under the impression that blacks have a higher enthusiasm for cornbread than any other ethnic group? The sentiment sounds racist, no matter what term he used. (Like we all don’t love watermelon, either!) He might have used one of his own stereotypes and said instead, “Like a hillbilly loves moonshine.” Understandably, Lena passed on promoting this particular song. Thankfully, when the song was eventually featured in Best Foot Forward on Broadway in 1941 and sung by Rosemary Lane, that controversial line was either cut or changed to something less offensive.
It seems that what was acceptable at one time in this country is not so tolerated anymore. The New York Yankees recently discovered that singer Kate Smith [1907-1986] has a history of popularizing songs containing racist lyrics and sentiment. As a result, the team’s officials have chosen to discontinue playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” before their games. The Philadelphia Flyers have followed suit and have even covered up the statue of Smith which stands outside the Wells Fargo Center.
One of the songs that is causing all the hoopla is “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which was written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown and introduced in 1931 in the Broadway revue George White’s Scandals. Kate Smith’s recording of it became a big hit. I suppose it was meant to be satirical, but I believe that a lot of people misinterpreted the intent. # Someone had to pick the cotton / Someone had to pick the corn / Someone had to slave and be able to sing, / That’s why darkies were born. # You get the idea. I suppose that people took a different take on it when Paul Robeson recorded the song. Kate then did another song called “Pickaninny Heaven,” which encourages little colored children to fantasize about this idyllic place where they will find “great, big watermelons” and other favorite treats. Both songs can be found on YouTube.
I find it so silly, though, and pointless to take issue with something that occurred 80 years ago, and since the woman is dead now, why punish her for something that she can’t do anything about? I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would dare to sing those songs in public today, but the ’30s was another time.
There seems to be a rise in newfound Caucasian sensitivity and awareness, resulting from apparent racial guilt, I guess. Whenever anyone says or does something racially controversial, it’s always other whites who call them on it and attempt to impose appropriate sanction on our behalf. It does not bother us as much, at least not me, because we are used to it. We have been getting it all of our lives. They haven’t said anything that we have not heard before. Why are you all so offended? They are not referring to you.
Another exception of defiance was Dorothy Dandridge [1923-1965]. She was the first female black actor to obtain star status in mainstream Hollywood films in the fifties. They even let her have an interracial romance with Curt Jurgens in 1959’s Tamango and with John Justin in Island in the Sun two years before that. Dorothy and Stuart Whitman actually kissed in The Decks Ran Red (1958), but her character was supposed to be Maori, not Afro-American. See how fickle the Hollywood execs are? There seems to be an exception to every rule they set up. And since Tamango was made in France, I guess the French were not so hung up about the interracial thing.
There were protest groups who were always trying to get the Hollywood movie studios to address and change their attitude about the black images and stereotypes that they perpetuated on the screen. But they would always try to justify their stubbornness by saying that they wanted to appease Southern sensibilities, whose moviegoers they claimed were their most faithful fans and biggest supporters, by maintaining their strict racist practices and the status quo. Of course, that’s bullshit. They knew that people outside of the Southern states went to movies just as much as anybody else, and that the South didn‘t have enough power to make or break a film. They were only passing the buck in an attempt to cover up their own racist agenda. Those movie moguls made their own rules. They never let the common public dictate to them how they should run things. They themselves set the standards of convention and movie protocol and expected us to go along with whatever they presented to us. They didn’t seem to figure out until decades later that when they finally did start putting People-of-Color in prominent and diverse movie roles, it only increased the movie-going public all over the country, not just in the South, which contributed only a tiny amount of profit anyway.
In the 92 years that have passed since they gave out that first one in 1928, only 45 more statuettes have been awarded to Afro-Americans, and 22 of those were not even for acting! Blacks have gotten a number of nominations in the top categories over the years, but only a few wins. One would think that in the scores of years that they have been passing out thousands of those things, that many more than only 43 blacks (29 men, 14 women) in the entire motion picture industry have been worthy to receive one. Forty-three, y’all!
What, you didn’t know that there were even that many? Well, let’s do an inventory, shall we? Besides Hattie winning hers for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind (she was also the first black woman to sing on American radio), in 1947 James Baskette [1904-1948] (who, you say?!) was awarded an honorary Oscar for portraying Uncle Remus in Song of the South (1946). (Mammy maids and “uncles”—great role models, huh?) Sidney Poitier won in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, playing a poor, migrant laborer, and for the next 39 years had the only one in the Best Actor category.
Isaac Hayes won one in 1971 for Best Song, “Theme from Shaft“. Next up was Louis Gossett Jr. for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982 as Best Supporting Actor, playing a military lifer. (That’s better, at least, after 20 years!) Then three more music awards, Stevie Wonder in 1984 for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from The Woman in Red, Lionel Richie the next year for “Say You, Say Me” from White Nights, and also in 1985 Prince received one for Best Original Score to Purple Rain. Then the next year Herbie Hancock won for Best Score to Round Midnight. Denzel Washington won his first one in 1989 for Glory as another soldier. Whoopi Goldberg won in 1990 for Ghost, where she played a petty crook and con artist.
In 1996 Quincy Jones was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Quincy has produced many movie scores, but he has never won for any of them. He revealed in an interview that he would sometimes overhear his co-workers warn, “Be quiet. Here comes the shvartzer.” He jokingly says that it was 20 years before he learned that shvartzer didn’t mean “composer/arranger.” Then in 1997, Cuba Gooding Jr. won for Jerry Maguire (with Denzel and Whoopi, all in the Best Supporting category), as a flamboyant, break-dancing, professional football player.
Finally, in the year 2002 the Academy did something totally unexpected. I don’t know if it was a conscience of good will that finally took hold of them or what, but not only were three major black stars nominated in the Best Actor/Actress categories, two of the three actually won! Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball, a heavy drama in which she has an explicit romantic affair with white Billy Bob Thornton. And Denzel took home his second Oscar for Training Day, in which he plays a renegade cop, and which was long overdue, in my opinion, as he had been turning in stellar performances almost every year prior to this win. Also that same night, Denzel’s predecessor, Sidney Poitier, was given another Special Oscar.
Things must be finally improving, because in 2005, there were five acting nominations of blacks and two wins. Jamie Foxx won a much-deserved Best Actor award for portraying the legendary Ray Charles in Ray, and Morgan Freeman won his long-overdue Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, playing a fight trainer. In 2007 there were five black actor nominations and two wins. Forest Whitaker won Best Actor for portraying Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and newcomer Jennifer Hudson won Best Supporting for Dreamgirls. In 2010 there were four more nominations and two wins. Mo’Nique won the Best Supporting Oscar for Precious, another emotional drama with the comedienne playing a cruel and abusive mother, and Geoffrey Fletcher won for writing the screenplay. In 2012, of the two nominations, it was Octavia Spencer who won for The Help. Thus the Academy voters had now come full circle by awarding the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to a black woman playing a southern housemaid!
They also awarded two honorary Oscars that year to James Earl Jones and Oprah Winfrey. So, Oprah got her Oscar after all, after being passed over for The Color Purple 27 years before. 2014 brought us four black nominees and two wins. Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o, won the Best Supporting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, for playing, what else?, a slave! And the director/producer of the film, Steve McQueen, (this is a different one), received one for winning Best Picture. In 2014 there was a double win for Best Song, “Glory,“ written by Common and John Legend for the film Selma.
In 2017 there were 11 People-of-Color nominations and six wins. The Best Supporting Actor and Actress were Mahershala Ali for Moonlight, playing a drug dealer, and Viola Davis won for Fences, playing a loving but cuckolded housewife. Ms. Davis could have qualified in the Best Actress category as well, but by opting for the other category gave her a better chance, which you see worked out in her favor. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney both won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Moonlight, and Jenkins got a second one for its winning Best Picture, as the film’s producer/director. Ezra Edelman won for producing and directing the Best Documentary Feature, O.J., Made in America.
2018 brought four acting nominations but no wins this time. However, Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for his Get Out, but losing out for directing it. And hoops star Kobe Bryant won for producing an animated short entitled, Dear Basketball. At last Cicely Tyson was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2018 for lifetime achievement.
The 2019 Oscar show did something completely unprecedented. Of the seven nominations for blacks, all of them won in their particular categories! Mahershala Ali won his second Best Supporting award for Green Book, now tying with Sidney and Denzel, and Regina King won Best Supporting for If Beale Street Could Talk. Spike Lee did not get it for directing BlackkKlansman, but he and his co-writers, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, all won in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Of Black Panther‘s six nominations, Ruth Carter won for Costume Design and Hannah Beachler won for Production Design.
There were only three nominations in 2020 and two wins. Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver won for their Animated Short Film, Hair Love. That makes a total of 46 awards by 43 different recipients.
Until 14 years ago, however, it seems that the Academy had not been so generous with us blacks. In 1985 The Color Purple received no less than 11 nominations, including Best Picture, and although it was produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, debatably one of the greatest filmmakers there is (let’s face it, the man knows how to make movies!), he did not get a Best Director nomination. What, did they think that the movie was put together all by itself?! And what’s more, the film did not win a single award! (A similar fate befell The Turning Point in 1977.) What do you think that was all about? Well, I’ll tell you.
I don’t think that the Academy people have anything against Spielberg personally. I think that it was the subject matter of the film that caused the Academy to slight him and his movie. Let’s work backwards for a moment. If The Color Purple had won Best Picture, as it well deserved to, it would have had to take most of the other categories as well, and that would have meant that a whole bunch of black folks would have walked away with Oscars. And we couldn’t have that, now could we? But why in the hell not?!
There are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, and you’ll notice that they were quick to honor Schindler’s List in 1994, also by Spielberg, but it was about Jewish persecution, and you know how they love to remind us all about the Holocaust every chance they get! Gentlemen’s Agreement, which was also about anti-Semitism, was voted the Best Picture of 1947. It’s only in the last few years that black-predominate Hollywood films have gotten any Academy recognition. It seems, though, that they almost always have to do with American slavery or domestic service (The Butler, Django Unchained, The Help). Oh, yes, occasionally we will be rewarded, as long as we “stay in our place,“ you see. But I suppose that we should be thankful for whatever they give us. Tyler Perry, whose films I happen to love and have proved to be very popular, always writes about today’s Afro-American experience, using major stars, black and white. He is a brilliant talent, in my opinion, but is constantly ignored by the Academy year after year. Maybe he should produce a slave movie!
Latinos have fared even worse. Rita Moreno is one of only three Puerto-Rican actors who have been Oscared. She won Best Supporting for West Side Story in 1961, José Ferrer (who I consider to be a white Puerto-Rican, so he shouldn’t even count), won a Best Actor award in 1950 for Cyrano de Bergerac and Benicio Del Toro won the Best Supporting award in 2000 for Traffic. Spanish-born Javier Bardem won Best Supporting in 2008 for No Country for Old Men and Penelope Cruz won in 2009 for Vicki Christina Barcelona. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro received Oscars this year for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. I don’t count Anthony Quinn either, who is of Mexican-Irish descent.
Asians have done considerably better by winning several in the past and more as of late. Japanese Miyoshi Umeki won in 1957 for Sayonara, Cambodian Dr. Haing S. Ngor in 1984 for The Killing Fields, both in the Best Supporting category, and behind-the-scenes Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe was awarded twice, for The Rose Tattoo in 1955 and Hud in 1963.
A major coup was accomplished at the 2001 ceremonies by winning four Oscars, with the inclusion of the Taiwanese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a nominated Best Picture. Producer-director Ang Lee won in the Best Foreign Film category, Tan Dun won for Best Original Score, Peter Pau for Cinematography and Tim Yip for Art Direction. Lee won a second Oscar in 2006 for directing Brokeback Mountain and a third in 2013 for directing Life of Pi. Ruby Yang won in 2007 for her Documentary Short Subject The Blood of Yingzhou District and Okuribito (Departures) won the 2009 Best Foreign Film for Japanese director Yojiro Takita. The Indian-themed Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Picture in 2008, brought with it Oscars for Best Sound to Resul Pookutty and two to its composer of the music score, A.R. Rahman, along with Sampooram Singh Gulzar for Best Song, “Jai-Ho.”
Asians did well in 2020, too, when the South Korean film, Parasite, won four Oscars for Bong Joon Ho in the categories of Best Director, Original Screenplay, Best Picture and International Feature (formerly Foreign Language Film) as well. Han Jin Won was the co-writer for the same film, and Japanese Kazu Hiro won the Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar for Bombshell.
We do get thrown a proverbial bone occasionally. Whoopi Goldberg has gotten to host the Academy Awards presentations four times now, and Chris Rock has done it twice now. So, I guess that’s something, anyway. But there still is a “Hollywood Blackout,” judging from the scarcity of black recognition in the industry. Last year a heated scandal was caused when even though there were several qualified candidates, not one black industry person was nominated for an Oscar! Some angry actors threatened to boycott the ceremonies, which wouldn’t change anything. I don’t know why they think that this is something new and different.
In the 89 years of the Oscars there is only 35 times that any Afro-American actor has been nominated. So then, that means that there are 54 years when there were no black nominees at all. So why are they just now so outraged? I suppose that there was no protest those other times because we had more important things to worry about than whether we got an Oscar nomination or not. We had civil rights issues to be concerned with and all kinds of personal stuff in our lives to deal with. So nobody really cared that Harry Belafonte was not nominated for The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) or that Cicely Tyson was not honored for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968).
To look at it another way, however, when the Academy voters intend not to award a black actor in any given year, they figure why even bother to nominate them in the first place? It’s better to use that spot for a less-worthy white nominee. They can’t think that the public is not aware of what’s going on–they just don’t care. After all, the industry’s racism and politics don’t need to be justified. They can do whatever they want. Show business has no written laws against discrimination, not that they could ever be enforced anyway.
But out of passive guilt and peer support, I suppose, two years ago the white acting community decided to make up for the oversight for their Screen Actors’ Guild Awards show. In each category in which they included one black nominee, each time that is the one who won. So when Uzo Aduba won the first award then Viola Davis then Queen Latifah and Idris Elba (who won two that night), it was so blatantly obvious, at least to me, what they were doing. Of course, they had to throw in a few white honorees as well, so as not to make it look too contrived. The people in attendance knew what was going on, too, but they and the winners played the scene and acted so surprised. “What, who me? My heart is full. Thank you all so much.”
I don’t understand the movie industry’s problem with us, since black people support the film companies as much as white people do. At least the Broadway stage and the recording industry are considerably better when it comes to awarding black artists and performers. But at the time that somebody dubbed Broadway and the theatre district “The Great White Way,” and for the longest time after, that’s exactly what it was!
One of my favorite pair of movies, because of their story content and sentimental value, racist though they are (it’s Hollywood; how can you avoid it?), is Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959). Although the two versions differ in certain aspects of the plot, basically it is about two young, single mothers (widows), one black, one white, each with a young daughter about the same age, who meet and become lifelong housemates and companions. In the earlier version, with Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert, the two get rich from marketing Aunt Jemima’s, I mean, Delilah’s fabulous pancake recipe. (It was waffles in the original novel.) But Delilah wants no share of the profits, preferring to remain with Colbert in a semi-servile capacity and justifying her attitude with pious phrases about staying in her place and accepting her lot in life. Now although it was Delilah’s recipe that she developed and made into the very successful and lucrative business that it became and, of course, did most of the work, she was offered only 20% interest in the corporation anyway. I expect that the white viewing audience would not have liked her to receive more than that, if even that much.
One of her most frequent, pointless reminders to her rebellious daughter is, “I’s yo’ mammy!” No wonder the girl keeps running away! Fannie Hurst, the author of the story, was hurt by the harsh criticism she received about the black characters. She claimed that she had portrayed them with “integrity and accuracy” (yeah, right; every black mother that I have ever known utters “I’s yo’ mammy” to their grown children), and that Negroes should be grateful to her for discussing black problems in her work. Well, please don’t do us any fucking favors, Mary, er, Fannie! Some white people think they know more about the black experience and how black people feel than we do ourselves.
The subplot of both films involves the fair-skinned daughter of the black woman, who is ashamed of her mother and is always trying to pass for white. Ms. Hurst and the white scriptwriters tried their best constantly to convey the message that why would anybody want to be black if they didn’t have to be? The modern concept of black pride was inconceivable to whites in those days. Some still cannot comprehend it. The character of Peola/Sarah Jane was so self-loathing, and she blamed her mother’s color for all her unhappiness. She had no self-pride, only misery for being born the way she was.
In the girl’s defense, however, her passing was often a passive act on her part. One early scene in both films has Peola/Sarah Jane’s mother bringing galoshes and umbrella to her daughter at school because it’s raining out. When the teacher informs the woman that she has no colored children in her class, Delilah/Annie proceeds to point her out, which humiliates the girl, and she runs out of the class. She later tells her mother when she scolds the child for passing, “They didn’t ask, so why should I say anything?“ I’m with her. If people want to perceive someone to be who they are not, that’s their doing. It’s only dishonesty if they ask directly if she is black and she outright denies it. Why should the girl go around announcing to everyone she encounters in life that she is not white? Who does that? “‘Scuse me, suh. I shouldn’t be sitting up here front with you good white folks. I’s colored. Put me back there with my own kind.” If no one asks, there is no reason to volunteer that information. Let people think what they want.
Interestingly, the very fair-skinned black actor Fredi Washington [1903-1994] was cast to play Peola, but as she has no romantic scenes with a white man, there was no problem. The later version, however, cast white actor (well, half-Mexican anyway) Susan Kohner to play Sarah Jane, even though she does not have any intimate scenes with her white boyfriend, played by Troy Donahue. Just the fact that it was only implied that they had been intimate off-screen, prompted that particular casting. When the two started seeing each other in secret, of course Sarah Jane let Troy assume that she was a white girl. She had planned on never telling him the truth and had even contemplated marriage. Did she honestly think that her mother’s identity would never come up?
When Troy finds out–apparently all his friends knew and told him–he does not take too kindly to the news. He even beats up Sarah Jane for deceiving him. Now if she had been upfront with the guy in the first place, she would have known that he is a racial bigot and would not have anything to do with him. Of course, now that even wouldn’t be an issue, at least not to that extent. I suppose that Douglas Sirk, the director, could have made it a non-issue as well, but that would have steered the story in a different direction. He apparently wanted the lack of black pride to be his main theme.
In the remake version, Lana Turner gets rich on her own by becoming a famous stage cum film actress, while costar Juanita Moore [1914-2014] contently remains her housekeeper, personal maid, nanny, best friend and confidante. But there is one aspect of the two women’s relationship, in both versions, that seems so unrealistic to me and irritates me every time I see it. And that is that even after 12 years of living in New York in the same house together as friends (supposedly), and up until her dying day, Juanita’s character still addressed Lana’s character as “Miss Lora.” Now it’s all right for Lora to call the black woman just “Annie,” but why did Annie, a grown woman herself and even older, have to call the white woman “Miss Lora” and Lana’s boyfriend (played by John Gavin) “Mister Steve,” who she’s known just as long? She even called Lora’s daughter (played by Sandra Dee) “Miss Susie,” but Susie, even while she was a child, was never required to call the older woman “Miss Annie,” out of elder respect, if nothing else.
Now in the South it was customary to address young, unmarried ladies by their first names with “Miss” in front of it–even the whites did it with each other–but this movie was set in New York, not Mississippi, and it’s 1959, mind you! Although Annie (and Delilah before her), did work for the other woman, she wasn’t exactly her servant, but rather her roommate, who kept house and cooked for them by choice. Adding that “Miss” and “Mister” is just Hollywood’s way for blacks always to show the required respect to their fellow white actors (even children) and to white society, in general, but not to receive, or even expect, any in return themselves. Who in real life would be doing that at that point in time and in that situation? It was an honored Hollywood tradition that they were unwilling to give up. What’s more is that Lora allowed it. She never once tells Annie, “Please drop the ‘Miss’ bit and just call me Lora. And that goes for Steve and Susie, too. This is the 1950s, and we are not in the South. You are a member of this family. We are equals.“ That’s the speech that is missing from the script.
One scene shows Annie giving Lora a foot massage. She must have been so achy and tired after sitting around all day on the movie set, you see. Now Annie has been on her feet all day cooking and cleaning that big house of theirs, and she is already ill. Why isn’t Lora giving Annie the foot massage?! She claims to care about her so much. But a white person actually touching a black person’s bare feet? Heavens forbid! They would never allow such a thing to be depicted on film. But why not? What difference should it make who is touching and comforting whom? It’s the same bodily contact, flesh on flesh. It is just the act itself that causes pause. You see, blacks are supposed, no, expected, to service and pamper the whites, not the other way around. But friends are supposed to have equal social status with each other. There is no equality there, however.
The actors themselves could have protested. I had wondered if any of them ever attempted to defy the producers and scriptwriters, or did they just accept the disrespect? I have since learned that many of them did protest. As she had done with Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel, and Louise Beavers, too, on other occasions both demanded that certain objectionable material in their scripts be taken out or changed. I can only suppose that Ms. Moore, in her case, did not think that this indignation was worth fighting for.
I did notice a positive change in 1975, when, in Funny Lady, the Fanny Brice biopic sequel to Funny Girl (1968), Fanny’s longtime black handmaid, dresser and confidante, Adele, played by Royce Wallace, actually got to address Fanny as just “Fanny,” with no “Miss” in front of it. I wonder if that was Herbert Ross’, the director, decision, or unlike Lana Turner, maybe Barbra Streisand spoke up and brought it to their attention. But it must have been Ross’ decision to stage the big production number in the film, “It’s Gonna Be a Great Day,” using a large ensemble of black chorines performing right alongside Barbra, instead of the usual all-white troop. I was pleasantly surprised and pleased. But since this was the early ’30s, the scene had to have been contrived.
When Lena Horne made a guest appearance on the popular ‘40s radio show “Duffy’s Tavern,” a comedy about a goofy bartender, staff members who saw the script told the star, Ed “Archie” Gardner, “You can’t let that Negro woman call you ‘Archie.’ She should call you either ‘Mr. Archie’ or ‘Mr. Gardner.’“ Lena refused. After considerable debate, they reached a compromise. On the air, they just didn’t call each other anything.
To show you that this convention must be a white thing, in the autobiographical The Learning Tree (1969), for instance, which was written, produced and directed by black filmmaker Gordon Parks [1912-2006], and takes place in 1920s Kansas, an elderly female character calls the sheriff of the small town by just his first name. No “Mister” required, as she probably has known the guy all his life. And she, as well as the other blacks in the film, use proper English when they speak. So you see, if you want to know how black people really behave, let them make their own movies.
Another film about passing is Lost Boundaries (1949), and based on a true story, in which Mel Ferrer portrays a Negro doctor passing for white, along with his wife and two grown children. Only in this one the children don’t know that they are black, because their parents never told them. The family is living in a small town in New Hampshire, and everybody just loves their doctor! He and his wife have won over the whole town. Their son is a musician/composer whose collaborator and friend is a black man, and their daughter reveals herself as a bigot. So after twenty years when Sonny Boy tries to enlist in the Navy, their secret finally gets out, as all secrets eventually do. And of course, there is a major change of attitude in the town. But why? They are the same people, so what’s different?
The fact that the actors portraying this family are so white in appearance and demeanor, nobody would take them as being anything other than that. The problem must have nothing to do with skin color. So what is it then? Perhaps it has more to do, in this particular case, with people’s objection to deception and purported desire for integrity. They didn’t like the fact that they all had been deceived by the doc. But if he had told them the truth up front, would they have been as accepting and welcoming by the townspeople? Somehow I doubt it. It’s another case of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t. You can’t win either way. They all did come around to forgiveness and re-acceptance by the end, however.
I did find it interesting, although a bit disturbing, when Doctor Mel tells his son, who is about 20-years-old, that he is in fact a Negro, the young man is devastated by the news. He even cries when the realization sinks in. His sister, too, is quite upset, although her boyfriend does not care that she is a Negro. She is the one with the problem about it. But I was wondering what did the kids’ parents tell them about black people all the while they were growing up that they would have such a negative and shameful opinion about them? I would think that they, of all people, would have taught their own children about racial tolerance and acceptance. But the fact that they were passing and didn’t even reveal the truth to their own children, they must have been harboring a lot of shame themselves. I mean, it didn’t bother me in the least when I discovered that I am black! White writers and others just don’t get the concept of black pride. They seem to think, who in the world would choose to be black if they could be white instead?
I have not read the original novel, so I don’t know if it was handled in the same way, but I once saw a filmed adaptation of Robinson Crusoe (1997) starring Pierce Brosnan in the title role. When shipwrecked Crusoe eventually encounters a black native on the island, they are at first wary of each other, and it takes them a while to gain some sort of mutual trust. Since this black “savage,” as Crusoe keeps referring to him—although Crusoe himself is the one with several firearms in his possession, going around shooting at everything—does not understand English, they do the “Me-Tarzan-You-Jane” exchange by way of introduction. Robinson points to the other man and tells him that he will be called “Friday.” He then points to himself and says that he should be called “Master.”
I suppose I should take into consideration that the book was written in 1717, but really now! This white man invades an already-inhabited tropical island, they’re both survivors fending for their lives, but his being white gives him the right to define class distinction, you see. No equality here! “Me, Master, you, Slave.” And this was not the American South either. Then Crusoe, as self-appointed missionary, has the chauvinistic audacity to try to convert Friday over to his culture, his religious beliefs and way of thinking, as if his is the right and only way to be.
In the jungle safari movies, with Tarzan, Bomba and the like, the native guides and others often address their fellow white characters as “Bwana,” which is Swahili for “Master.” I wonder if they really do that, or is that just the white scriptwriters’ doing? I have heard even the tribal chiefs in these films call these white men Bwana when it’s the lowly commoners who should be calling the chiefs that! It’s as if telling them, “I don’t care what your status or high authority is in your own village, compared to the Almighty White Man, I am still your Master.”
In The Defiant Ones (1958) Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are escaped convicts who are chained together and on the lam. But even though Tony’s character is a poor, uneducated redneck and in the same social situation as his black costar, he still considers himself superior by the mere fact that he is white. That is the only difference about them. That attitude epitomizes white supremacy. “Neither of us has a pot to piss in, but the fact that you’re black and I’m white, makes me better than you.”
When I watch old Hollywood movies, especially the MGM musicals, I am so acutely aware of the blatant lack of black people in every scene. In all of these films, specifically the ones set in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the street scenes are completely devoid of People-of-Color! How could that be? I mean, we see them in their capacity as servants, laborers and the like, so no matter what kind of job they have, they must go out in public some time! That porter does not live on the train around the clock. They travel to and from work and shop just like everybody else. Where can you go in any of these cities and not ever encounter blacks, Latinos and Asians at any given time and place? For years it has made us all feel that we don’t even exist.
One prime example is “I Love Lucy,” one of my favorite TV series of all time and one which every episode I have seen more than a few times. Although the show is set in Manhattan (it was actually produced in Hollywood), with trips across the country to “California,” Miami and even Cuba, we never encountered a single person-of-color during the nine years it aired its 192 first-run episodes. Everyone knows that there were loads of black people in New York, even in the fifties. Of course, every other show of that period was the same way, so I am only singling out that one as an example. The same can be said of films from the ’40s and ’50s with a college setting, like Good News (1947)–there are others as well–that apparently have no students other than whites going there. What, no blacks ever attended college? Or maybe those that did, attended only the all-black colleges.
In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) Jack Lemmon’s character works as a clerk in a huge New York company that boasts “31,259 employees,” all white! That is so unrealistic. Even in the sixties, black women worked as secretaries, receptionists and clerks. Although I did get a glimpse of a black janitor in one scene, and a black man is shining Fred MacMurray‘s shoes in another, even the building’s elevator operators are white, one being played by Shirley MacLaine.
Another corporation-set movie musical is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), directed by David Swift. The opening shot of the film is Times Square during weekday rush hour, and we next a lot of people emerging from the subway–but not a single dark face in the crowd. I mean, didn’t any black folks or Asians ride the subways in the ‘60s? Was that off-limits to us, too? The big “Worldwide Wicket Company” of the story was all-white, including all the employees–executives, secretaries, mailroom personnel, everybody. There aren’t any people-of-color even in menial service positions, as I could see. Of the thousands of people we see on Manhattan streets on a daily basis, I spied only one token black man in one shot.
How hard was it, when rounding up extras for crowd scenes, to extend the casting calls to include all ethnic types, instead of restricting it to only whites? That is what they do now. It was not enough attention to detail, on the part of the directors, in my opinion. It’s New York City, and naturally, there will be a lot of people on the street. So, hire a lot of extras to effect a bit of realism. But not just anybody. Take it a step further and hire a cross-section of typical citizens of all ethnicities, if you want true realism. Believe me, somebody will notice if they don’t, and especially if they do.
In Bachelor in Paradise (1961) Bob Hope is a writer whose assignment is to do a book on how “Americans” live. His publisher sends him to a housing development in California where reside “a cross-section of typical America.” So then why is this residential community populated entirely by white folks, not a single black, Asian or Latino in sight? Hollywood seems to want to promote the notion that America is run and controlled by white people alone. Well, isn’t it? Please realize that I am speaking in the present past. Of course, things have changed considerably since the ’60s, before and after.
In The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) trumpeter Jack Benny dreams he is an angel, and there is a scene of him in Heaven as a member of the Heavenly Choir and Orchestra. The screen is filled with thousands of angel extras, but there is not one dark face in the crowd! So Hollywood Heaven (just like the Mormon Heaven) is populated entirely with white people.
Well, really, there must be more than one Heaven then, because in The Green Pastures (1936) all the Heavenly inhabitants are Negro. So it must be that, like everywhere else in the movies, Heaven has to be segregated, too. The moguls might even have rationalized it by reasoning that “God” is a racial segregationist, so then it’s all right for them to be as well.
But then there is the 1934 Al Jolson feature, Wonder Bar. I have not seen the whole film, only some excerpts. There is a sequence of Jolson in blackface, who “goes” to Heaven, which is populated by other white actors in blackface. As befitting white man’s idea of a black Heaven, we see pork chop trees and watermelons everywhere. We sho’ loves our watermelon, don’t they know!
Since motion pictures and TV, too, are white-controlled mediums, they wanted to present the world from their own desired viewpoint. It has always been the case of deliberate and accepted racism by the industry and the general public. They didn’t even make an attempt at any kind of realism by rounding up a bunch of colored folks for use as extras, although at any one time there were over 15,000 black actors registered with Central Casting. But why go to all that trouble? Just use the plethora of white folks that the studios already have on hand. Of course, when they did films that required all-black casts, they didn’t have any trouble finding them. In Carmen Jones, for instance, there is a boxing match scene with hundreds of extras in attendance, all black, not a single white face in the bunch. Don’t white people attend public boxing matches? And this was supposed to be Chicago, too. I mean, even whites attend the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
The Hollywood producers just did not like to encourage and depict racial integration in the movies. I mean, it was bad enough when they put one black person among an all-white cast, they certainly weren’t going to subject a few white guys to mingle with a whole slew of blacks. They just didn’t care what we thought about that. We all were aware of what was going on, but hardly anybody did anything about it for decades. But as there are always exceptions to everything, I was quite surprised, while watching Bells Are Ringing (1960) one night and in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), to see not one or two, but several black extras for the Manhattan street scenes in the movies. Of course, they didn’t have any lines, they were only there for show, but at least directors Vincente Minnelli and Stephen Frears thought enough to include them.
I would like movies to be a reflection of real life. They all shouldn’t be fantasies. Even at the present day, I don’t think that any movie has achieved complete realism in its script, screen images or casting. I still hear and see things that happen only in the movies. (Check out my blog entitled, Cinematic Pros and Cons.) To illustrate further my point about racial non-mixing in early films, I watched Flying Down to Rio (1933) a while ago, and the extended “Carioca” number I noticed to be in three distinct parts. It started out with all lily-white men and women (supposedly North American tourists) dancing together in a nightclub to the tune, including a pas de deux turn by Fred and Ginger. When that group had cleared the set, another group of male and female dancers in native costume came out, and this bunch still looked Caucasian for the most part, although there may have been a few Latinos thrown in for good measure, with a Latina girl singer to perform the lyrics of the song. I had just commented to myself that this was supposed to be Brazil, which is populated by many black people, too, even in the ‘30s, and there is nary a one in this entire place!
When I thought that this production number was ending, I was redeemed when the scene switched to another singer, definitely black this time, who sang the whole song through again, accompanied by a troupe of black male and female dancers. But what was strange about this segment was that although the music was playing all the while, with the same audience looking on, this new group was not in the same area as the previous one. When the scene subsequently switched back and forth between the black dancers and the quasi-Hispanic ones, I saw definitely that they were on two different sets. So, they wouldn’t let the whites and the faux Latinos dance together, but at least they could use the same space, just not at the same time. But the blacks couldn’t even use the same space but had to be filmed on another set entirely! Even though the filmmakers chose to depict the ethnic diversity of Rio de Janeiro, they didn’t want everybody mingling together. And since it was obvious to anyone watching that scene, I am sure that the director purposely wanted the theatergoers to notice that the sets were different, so that no one could complain, “How dare they let those coloreds use the same dance area as the whites!“
Since we know that movies do not always reflect real life, I suppose if they never show the different races mixing in everyday society on the screen—except, of course, for the peripheral subservient parts—then it must be okay, even publicly sanctioned, that we not integrate in real life either. It’s no wonder then that this same attitude was practiced at the studios. Some of the black contract players have reported that social race-mixing was pretty rare, off, as well as on, the set. “I have to work with you, it’s part of my job, but I don’t have to socialize with you on my off time.”
Fortunately, this policy has been changed as of late. Casting for new TV shows and commercials is now promoting positive racial integration. Most white stars of series and movies have an ethnic costar or best friend, and vice versa. Interracial romantic relationships are allowed and encouraged without judgment and objection by the other characters. Even in groups and dance ensembles which used to be exclusively white, you will now usually find your conspicuous black performer among the ranks. Of course, there are your occasional tokens, but at least they are making a conscious effort, whereas before, they wouldn’t even include the token!
Spike Lee once recounted in an interview how when he goes to the major movie studios to meet with the bigwigs to discuss a directing project, they tend to hire Negroes to sit in on the meetings. They don’t have anything to contribute, however. They just sit there and nod their heads and “hm-hm” every now and then. It’s obvious to Spike that they are there only for show. The moguls don’t want Mr. Lee to be the only black person present. Word might get out, you see.
In the more-sanctioned movie world, black actors had to display their talents in films where all the performers were black. It was merely a way for white racist filmmakers to promote racial segregation via the medium of the movies. Even when Hollywood produced these so-called “race films” with the all-black casts and which were intended specifically for black audiences, the types of roles depicted were still from the aspect of American white society. There were always singing and dancing and gambling and partying in a nightclub.
Stormy Weather has the same production values as any other MGM musical, but done with an all-black cast instead of white. The talent is apparent, with Lena and Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers; even the chorines and musicians are all top-rate. But they never considered using these same performers in their all-white musicals. The white audiences didn’t mind these race films, as they, too, enjoyed being entertained by talented blacks, as long as they were doing it with their own kind.
Again, there are always exceptions for every convention that the studios set up. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson [1878-1949] did get to dance with Shirley Temple a few times, but since she was just a little girl, it was allowed. No sexual impropriety there, you see. Another instance is in The Band Wagon (1953), when Fred Astaire does a dance duet with a black man, Leroy Daniels [1928-1993], who was a shoeshiner…for real! But since they are both grown men, I guess that must be all right, too. Gene Kelly choreographed a fantastic dance routine with the Nicholas Brothers for The Pirate (1948), and because of all the hard work put into the number, Kelly insisted that it not be cut when shown in certain venues. Those southern dissenters would just have to get over themselves.
It appears that director Vincente Minnelli does not have a problem with using black people in his films, as I cited earlier. His very first directing assignment was Cabin in the Sky, after all! Still another later example of racial commingling on screen is in Sweet Charity (1969), in which a white woman, (Shirley MacLaine), a Latina (Chita Rivera) and an Afro-American (Paula Kelly) have a rousing song and dance number together. But they are all the same sex, too, so again, it‘s all right. This time it’s Bob Fosse at the helm.
The MGM musical biopic about Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), begins with the Broadway opening night of his Show Boat in 1927, which has a mixed cast of Negroes (in prominent roles) and whites onstage together in several of the musical numbers in the show. In the original production, incidentally, the very first line in the opening number, “Cotton Blossom” (the name of the showboat), and sung by the blacks themselves is, # Niggers all work on de Mississippi, niggers all work while de white folks play… # Thankfully, that word has been changed in subsequent productions to, “Colored folks work…” or “Here we all work…” Even the first spoken line in the show is to a black supporting character, Queenie, when a man says to her, “Nigger, where did you get that brooch?” She probably was not all that personally offended, however, because the part of Queenie at that time was being played by a white woman in blackface!
I suppose it probably was a political compromise. Since the black and white performers had to work together for the sake and integrity of the story, the racial epithets and demeaning disrespect toward the black characters were left in intentionally to let audiences know that the producers still honored their sentiments about race relations of the times. “We’ll let them sing together, as long as we can maintain our racist agenda and they remain in their place.” “Well, okay then, in that case…”
Remember that the character Julie was kicked off the boat when discovered that she was a mulatto. In the actual show when Julie sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” she is in the presence of Magnolia, the heroine, and Joe and Queenie, who work as servants on the boat. But in this movie, Lena Horne sings the song alone with no one else in the scene with her. So they still employed their isolation bit when they could get away with it. Although Joe is a minor character with few scenes and lines, he gets to perform the most famous and most popular song in the entire show, “Ol’ Man River.”
Another pleasant surprise was in Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) when John Philip Sousa’s Band had just played “Dixie” for the townspeople of Atlanta, and they next proceeded to do “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung by an all-Negro choir, right there in the town square!
Fortunately, as in most situations, there were some enterprising black filmmakers, like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, who wrote, produced and directed their own independent films—silents and talkies, throughout the ‘20s to the 40s. Micheaux [1884-1951], the son of former slaves and with little formal education, had published three novels by the age of 33, and he made 40 low-budget feature-length films that he usually paid for with his own money. He avoided addressing the problems of the ghetto in his films, focusing instead on the black middle class.
Spencer Williams [1893-1969] also starred in his own films, just as some of our actor-directors of today, like Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood do. This Williams, an intelligent and accomplished screenwriter, director and songwriter (he wrote the song “Basin Street Blues”), is the same actor who portrayed the dim-witted Andy in the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV series of the ‘50s. Unfortunately, most of these films by both artists had limited circulation away from the mainstream, playing exclusively in theaters that catered to blacks-only audiences. All but a handful of their films are now lost.
During the days of New York’s Cotton Club in Harlem, black entertainers were hired to perform there all the time, but blacks could not attend a show there as patrons. Other nightclubs and hotels had the same policy. I’ve heard Ray Charles and others report that at one time they couldn’t even visit their white friends at their tables where they were performing. This was in Las Vegas, by the way, not Selma, Alabama. And the black performers couldn’t even use the front door for entrance. They had to come in the back door, the “service entrance”! They were merely hired help after all, there only to amuse the white folks.
Due to the policy of segregated audiences in some places, they were expected to do two shows in those venues, one for the whites and another one for the blacks. Artists like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin refused to go along with that. Ray Charles, for another, was banned from the state of Georgia for many years because he wouldn’t comply. As much as Louis Armstrong was revered, especially by white folks–they loved them some Satchmo, didn’t they?–he never got to headline in Las Vegas. He was always featured under a white act.
After the run of Porgy and Bess on Broadway in 1935, the production went on tour. When the all-black cast arrived at the National Theater in Washington, DC, they discovered that the theater allowed only white patrons. Didn’t the theater managers consider or care that the black citizens of Washington just might be interested in seeing a live show that features other black people? The show’s lead, Todd Duncan, who played Porgy, refused to perform under that condition. When the theater manager offered Wednesday and Saturday matinees to black patrons, Duncan would not compromise. Then the manager offered the second balcony to blacks for every performance, but Duncan and the rest of the cast stood their ground. Thanks to the company’s resolve, in March 1936 the National Theater became desegregated for the first time in its history.
As I always say, people will get away with what you let them get away with. Don’t tell me that I cannot possibly have my own stateroom when I am on a cruise ship. Why not? I don’t want to hear that. I am a headliner. You knew I was coming on. You should have reserved my room ahead of time. Just make it happen!
Being our country’s capital, I suppose there are those who don’t realize that Washington, DC is located in the South, lying between Maryland and Virginia. I learned that the Pentagon, our nation’s defense building, has twice as many restrooms in it than necessary, because when it was built in 1941, the state of Virginia still honored the segregation law of separate facilities for blacks and whites! Now, wouldn’t you think that the capital of our Government would ignore such unfair practices and attempt to set things right with a positive example? But then, white racial bigots have always run the Congress too, haven’t they?
Black performing artists while on tour often had trouble finding acceptable lodging and places to eat on the road. Remember James Baskette, who won that Special Oscar for portraying Uncle Remus? He had to miss the premiere of Song of the South in Atlanta because no hotel in town would give him a room. There were even segregated hotels in Hollywood up until the sixties. Director/actor Paul Mazursky reported that when he co-starred in Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Sidney Poitier, when they were not working, Sidney and the other black members of the cast had to stay in a different hotel than the whites. And this was in southern California, yet! But I suppose that the South is still the South, no matter how far west you go.
When Lena Horne was on tour with Charlie Barnet and his all-white band, there were many restaurants at which she was not allowed to eat. Even during shows white couples would dance by the bandstand, stare at her and make remarks loud enough for her to hear–“How do you suppose she got that job?” (Maybe it was her talent?) and “Did you see the way that nigger singer throws herself at the men?” Do you mean her relating to her audience, as any good performer is wont to do? I wish that ignorant people would keep their ignorant opinions to themselves.
This is another true account, according to the 1999 biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. When Dorothy played Las Vegas once during the ‘50s, she had already been advised of her restrictions. She had to take all of her meals in her room, she had to use the back entrances to and from the hotel and she wasn’t allowed to associate with the clientele or use the public restrooms. If she had to take a pee outside of her hotel room, she was instructed to use a disposable cup! I guess she was expected to shit into one, too. At one point during her stay, I suppose it was out of spite, Dorothy went down to the hotel pool and deliberately stuck her foot in and laughed as she kicked the water. After much gasping and clutching of pearls—although there was no one in the pool at the time—the horrified white onlookers apparently reported the incident immediately, which prompted the management to drain the pool! Have you ever heard of anything so inane?
For the mere sake of humiliating, demeaning and dehumanizing a black person, some whites will go to any lengths and spare no expense to do so. But in their typical fashion, who do you think they got to do the actual work of emptying, cleaning and then refilling the pool? Why, the black janitors/maintenance men, of course! Oh, these white people can be outraged about something, but they don’t care enough to remedy the situation by actually doing the work involved themselves. I can only imagine what those workers thought when given the task. “You boys have to clean the pool because one of your people stuck her foot in it.” “What?! So?!” There are other pool stories involving black entertainers, including Sammy Davis Jr. and The Supremes.
These race films were almost always musical comedies, because just as it is still, “they” don’t seem to think that black actors can handle serious drama. I mean, what the hell do we know of conflict, human relations and romance, right? Up until recently, every series that made it to network TV, that featured mostly black actors, was a situation comedy. The few dramatic series that made it on never survived. “Matt Waters,” with Montel Williams, and before that, “Under One Roof,” which starred James Earl Jones and Joe Morton, lasted just 5 weeks apiece.
The only drama series that lasted for five seasons, but it aired on Showtime, which I didn’t have at the time, so I never got to see it, was “Soul Food.” It did go into syndication for a while but is no longer on. The ABC Family channel for a while featured a weekly black family drama series called “Lincoln Heights,” but that one, too, has since been cancelled. There are a few shows that have a black actor as the lead character, but I don’t consider “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” for example, black shows. And Tyler Perry’s soap operas on OWN, “The Haves and the Havenots” and “If Loving You Is Wrong” feature an evenly-mixed cast, so I don’t consider them black shows either. I mean by that a show whose cast is mostly black and is not a comedy series.
Now with the advent of the cable networks BET, Centric and OWN, we are finally seeing black drama series that last beyond one season. There are “Being Mary Jane,” “Empire” (on Fox), “The Game,” “Greenleaf,” “The Quad,” “Queen Sugar” and “Rebel,” to name those that I, myself, am familiar with. But then, I guess no ethnic group other than whites can do drama, it seems. The Asian and Latino family shows that make it to TV (“Cristela,” “Dr. Ken,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin”) are all also sitcoms.
Even repeated attempts to improve the black image on TV were always subject to some kind of criticism. Sure, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” featured an all-black cast, but the characters were not a reflection of the real world. When “Julia” and “I Spy” came along in the late ‘60s, Diahann Carroll’s and Bill Cosby’s characters were too intelligent and articulate to be deemed real. They were called “white Negroes.” Hal Kanter, the producer of “Julia,” received this letter from a viewer: “That Diahann Carroll is much too pretty to be colored. You must have put dark makeup on a white woman.” (But why would they do that?) From an irate Southerner: “How dare you put that Negress on the TV and ram it down our throats like that?!”
In 1943, when Lena Horne appeared on the cover of Motion Picture magazine, the first black ever, they received this letter from a small town in Texas which read, “I consider Lena Horne a good singer, but I also think all colored people should be kept in their place. You picture her as if she were the same type of person as other actresses. Try to keep her publicity and pictures off the front of your books. Such publicity is the cause of riots and is going to cause more.“ What is their problem?! Does this guy think that he is speaking for everybody in the world or that they should comply to his wishes on his word alone?
In 1962 when Diahann was on tour in Detroit with No Strings, some local white woman threw an after-show reception at her home for the entire cast–everybody except Diahann, that is. She wasn’t invited to the party because, as the woman explained to Richard Rodgers, she didn’t want to expose her children to Ms. Carroll for fear that it would confuse them, as the only black people they knew were the servants who worked for her. What?! Can you believe some people’s audacious ignorance? And of course, she’s now passing on her ignorant bigotry to her innocent children. It’s that mother’s fault if her kids are confused, not Diahann’s. This could have been her chance to show her kids that blacks can do other things besides cook for them and clean her fucking house! But as one monkey don’t stop the show, Diahann ended up throwing her own party for the cast at her hotel.
In 1966 there was a Broadway show that flopped, entitled Holly Golightly, that was a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany‘s. Before it closed, however, there was an unsubstantiated rumor going around that Diahann Carroll was being considered to replace Mary Tyler Moore in the title role. A joke began to surface that if Ms. Carroll did get the part, they would have to change the title to “Holly Godarkly.”
“Good Times” had a typical, two-parent, urban ghetto family. Then they had to make the eldest son, J.J., a jimcrovian buffoon, which ruined the show for a lot of people. And although I did like “The Jeffersons,” George Jefferson’s conduct and demeanor was no different than George “Kingfish” Stevens of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and was as bigoted and opinionated as Archie Bunker. It wasn’t until “The Cosby Show” came along that we finally had a somewhat realistic black family that most Americans could accept and relate to.
The current “black-ish” is a good show, too, as it deals with an upper middle-class black family in a modern setting. They use satire to tackle social hypocrisy and issues, such as racial identity and self-awareness, education, morality and assessment of the Internet as a helpful tool or dangerous distraction, for examples. Similar is “The Carmichael Show,” produced and written by series star Jerrod Carmichael, is also controversial and thought-provoking. Just like “Father Knows Best” was 60 years ago, on both shows there are always life lessons to be learned by the end of each episode.
Hollywood film production continued throughout World War II, but have you ever noticed that most war films excluded blacks, and when they did appear, there were never more than one or two? Hollywood wanted to make it clear that this War (as well as all the others) was fought and won only by White America. It’s just like up until recently there were no black cowboys in Hollywood and TV westerns. The irony in this is that the term “cowboy” originally referred only to Negro cattle handlers. A white man who did the same thing was called a “cowhand.” Come on, if they have a white guy and a black guy, both 30 years of age there working on the same ranch, which one do you think would be called “Boy”? Like, a white woman who takes care of white children is called a nanny, but at one time a black woman who took care of white children was called a mammy.
I learned that one out of every three so-called cowboys/cowhands was black and that half the people who settled California were black. You sure won’t learn that from those old Hollywood westerns where everyone is white, except for the lazy and dumb or otherwise villainous and immoral Mexicans, the savage, murderous Indians and the fawning, subservient Chinese peasants. And then most of them were played by white actors, therefore they could be portrayed inappropriately as well.
In all those prison pictures of the ’30s through the ’60s, there were never any black inmates, or very few. Why is that? We do crime, too! Or did we start to go bad only in the last 50 years or so? The 1955 campy B-movie Women’s Prison is one case in point. Among the cast of inmates I cited only four blacks. One unnamed extra was seen working alone in the laundry. But she and the other three apparently shared the same cell, because when the women emerged from their cells for daily roll call and head count, there those four would be standing together in their own group rather than intermingled with the white prisoners. So even in a setting such as a prison, where everyone there should be an equal, they still had to segregate the blacks from the whites.
One of the four blacks, and the only one who was an actual character with a name and spoken lines, is our girl Juanita Moore. The first scene in which she is introduced, we find her on her hands and knees—the only one in the whole place doing it—scrubbing the floor and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”! She must be so happy. The prison population there seems to be 99% white, but it’s the minority black inmate that gets the privilege and honor to be the lone resident floor-scrubber. See how they do us? Even a hardened career criminal, serving life in prison, if she’s white, doesn’t deserve to have to do such menial labor as that.
In Caged (1950), my favorite women’s prison film, there is not a single black (or anything else) in the entire film. Warden Agnes Moorehead tells innocent new arrival, Eleanor Parker, “There are all types of women in here, just like on the outside.“ You mean that there are all types of white women in here, don’t you, Aggie? Where in this country is there a prison that doesn’t have any black inmates? Only on a old Hollywood studio movie set would be my guess.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing hardly any black people on the screen during the ’50s and ’60s, except for Tarzan and jungle films and others set in Africa where they needed natives, and the aforementioned Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959), both musicals. Sidney Poitier was one of the very few blacks who had regular work as a leading actor during that period, and in non-traditional roles at that. He got to play doctors and schoolteachers and police detectives, for example. In fact, Sidney portrays a hospital staff surgeon in his very first feature film, No Way Out (1950). He has always managed to take on the more respectable roles throughout his career. Of course, the characters he played often did not get the respect that they deserved. In No Way Out bigoted hoodlum Richard Widmark continues verbally to abuse Sidney with nasty racial comments, even after the doctor saves his life twice during the film. He keeps trying to convince everyone that Sidney had killed his brother (he didn‘t, by the way), which he does to try to justify his hatred for the doc.
In Pressure Point (1962) Sidney plays a prison psychiatrist who is assigned to help a stubborn, bigoted Nazi patient, played by Bobby Darin. No matter how good or how high or prestigious a position Sidney’s characters were put in, there were always those around him who would prefer that he remain in a lowly place and worthy of no respect. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), however, the writers made Sidney’s character so perfect and admirable that his white fiancée’s parents, after checking his history and credentials, cannot find a single reason why their daughter shouldn’t marry this man, other than the fact that he is a Negro.
Sidney must be a major star with some clout when he was able to get away with striking a white man (Larry Gates) across the face in In the Heat of the Night (1967). This bold act was not in the original script but something that Sidney thought his character would do in that situation. And he was right. I, too, would have been compelled to slap the son-of-a-bitch back if he had slapped me for no reason! The gesture in that scene has prompted many first-time viewing audiences to cheer for Sidney. Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) never mentions the fact that “Endicott” struck a police officer, which is supposed to be against the law. He seemed to be more concerned that a black dared to strike a Southern white man, which again indicates that whites think they can do anything to a black person and he is just supposed to stand there and take it, with no retaliation. Well, he found out that Virgil Tibbs don’t play that!
Harry Belafonte plays a school principal in his very first movie, Bright Road (1953). In all his subsequent films, too, he is either the lead or an important supporting character. The same can be said of Rex Ingram [1895-1969]. He got to play both comic and dramatic leading and supporting roles in most of his films. He was cast against type as a giant genie in the British-made fantasy film The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and he was the first actor to portray on film both God in The Green Pastures (1936) and the Devil in Cabin in the Sky (1943).
Afro-Puertorican actor Juano Hernandez [1896-1970] played the more dignified roles, too, including a jazz trumpeter and teacher/mentor to Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn (1950) and a presiding judge in Trial (1955). In his very first film, Intruder in the Dust (1949) Hernandez plays a proud, rich, Southern landowner who stands up to the good ol’ boys in town when he is falsely accused of killing a local white man. He was a boxer, circus performer, radio scriptwriter, worked in vaudeville and acted on Broadway. Leigh Whipper had a prolific acting career on stage and screen for a span of 52 years. He graduated from Harvard Law School and was the first black person to join Actor’s Equity Association. He died in 1975 at the age of 99.
Another black actor who had regular film work in the ’40s through the ’90s was Woody Strode [1914-1995]. He managed to avoid the usual menial, subservient roles and played mostly characters with some dignity and substance. His co-starring role in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is a good example. Although he does play a slave gladiator in Spartacus (1960), he is on equal status with the star Kirk Douglas, who is also a slave and with whom he has a climactic fight-to-the-death. Of the very few black extras used in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Woody appeared as the King of Ethiopia. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) he was just one of the regular guys and a companion to John Wayne. Woody was a tribal leader in a few Tarzan and Bomba movies and worked a lot in Italian films as well.
Ernest Anderson [1915-2011], in additional to unavoidable service roles, he did get to play better parts on TV, like schoolteachers and police officers, and he worked constantly throughout the ’40s through the ’70s. In his very first film, In This Our Life (1942), with Bette Davis, Olivia De Haviland and Hattie McDaniel as his mother, Ernest works as a law clerk while studying to be a lawyer himself, until that bitch Bette tries to frame him for a hit-and-run murder which she herself committed. Of course, most everyone believes Bette’s word over Ernie’s.
James Edwards [1918-1970] managed to escape the usual typecasting for black actors by getting to play a lot of military personnel during his career. He starred in his second film, Home of the Brave and in Patton (1970), but died before it was released. Of course, unless the cast is all-black, the aforementioned actors always had to deal with racial issues in the movies they were in and did not receive the deserved respect from the other characters.
I used to go to the movies every Sunday afternoon for years, and the films at that time were a lot of science fiction and monster flicks, or beach movies or love stories, which rarely used any blacks. Notice that in the futuristic segment (it applies to the entire film, in fact) of The Time Machine (1960), for example, the evolved, surviving humans, called Eloi, are all blond-haired, blue-eyed and white. It seems that Hungarian director George Pal apparently envisioned the world of the future to be completely devoid of any People-of-Color (wishful thinking, perhaps?). That’s sort of the ideal world that Hitler was going for, isn’t it? His War of the Worlds seven years earlier has nary a black in it either. What, did Pal think that nobody would notice the blatant omissions, or he just didn’t care? The savage Morlocks in the story are green-skinned, unattractive cannibals who are the masters but tormenting rulers of the passively innocent Eloi lot. So I guess “colored” characters can be in the film as long as they are depicted as the dreaded villains of the piece.
I am pleased to report, however, that in the 2002 remake of the story, that segment has been revised to my satisfaction. The film actually differs in all aspects. In this latter version, directed by author H.G. Wells’ great-grandson, Simon Wells, the Eloi are not exactly black, but they are not white either. They appear to be a combined hybrid, which makes logical sense, since the predominance of subsequent interbreeding would most likely produce a common racial mix in the far-off future. The Morlocks, on the other hand, are more animalistic in appearance, but quite ugly just the same. As I have not read the book, I don’t know if that is how the way Wells himself described them. You cannot trust Hollywood always to remain true to authors’ adapted works. The main character, played by Guy Pearce, even encounters a holographic entity at a library which embodies all knowledge of the entire world and its history, and it’s played by the black actor Orlando Jones.
I think by this time (that is, the period during which there was a dearth of blacks on the screen) the NAACP and other watchdog groups had begun to protest the stereotyping of black actors in the same type of roles all the time, so the writers and casting directors were now at a loss. “If we can’t cast them as servants, porters and janitors, then what else can they do?!” The obvious solution: just stop using us at all. But then along came those “blaxploitation” films of the ’70s. You’ll notice that all of the films that feature Anglos exclusively are not referred to as “whitexploitation.” It was probably Melvin Van Peebles who started it all with his Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song in 1971. By its becoming a big hit and the Powers-That-Be realizing a definite potential market and audience interest in this new genre, the major studios took a chance and proceeded to produce a slew of black-oriented films throughout the decade.
1971’s Shaft was already in the planning stage when the producers decided to change the lead character from a white man to a black. And although these films were very popular–I suppose that we were so glad to see black actors working again–they were also met with a lot of criticism from black interest groups because of the screen images they mostly depicted. Still with white filmmakers in charge, black actors now had gone from innocent, non-threatening, subservient roles to taking on the criminal element by playing pimps, prostitutes, petty thugs, bank robbers, gang members, drug dealers, addicts and other questionable lowlifes. The only “good guys” were cops and detectives. Was that progress? Sure, these films gave work to many fine black actors during this period, but at what expense? We sure weren’t improving our social image much.
There were some near exceptions, as producers provided some black actors with traditional white character role opportunities when they decided to make black versions of classic horror villains. There were black vampires (Blacula), black werewolves (The Beast Must Die), a black Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, a black Jack the Ripper (Black the Ripper) and a black Frankenstein creature (Blackenstein)! But by these characters being the evil protagonists, they all ended up being killed or destroyed by the end of the picture. Black westerns and love stories also showed up during this time. There were Buck and the Preacher (1972), Thomasine & Bushrod  (a black Bonnie and Clyde), and there was even a black The Exorcist rip-off called Abby (1974). In the theatre for classic Broadway musicals and plays, we have a black The Wizard of Oz (The Wiz), a black Kismet (Timbuctu), black casts for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Gin Game, The Odd Couple, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Trip to Bountiful.
Fortunately, non-specific casting has become a regular practice in recent decades. Lead characters in plays and movies don’t all have to be white anymore. Whoopi Goldberg, for one, certainly has broken the color barrier by getting roles that were originally intended for white actors. Her part in Fatal Beauty (1987) was originally offered to Cher, Bette Midler was supposed to do Sister Act (1992), and her character in Ghost (1990) could have been written for anybody, but Patrick Swayze asked for Whoopi specifically. Each of the aforementioned would have been a whole different movie if somebody other than Whoopi had done them.
On the new “Supergirl” TV series, the traditionally-white role of Jimmy Olsen is now being played by Afro-American actor Mehcad Brooks, and in the new 2016 Ben-Hur remake Morgan Freeman is playing the part that Welsh actor Hugh Griffith plays in the earlier version in 1959. And how about this? It has been reported that British black actor Idris Elba is being considered to be the next James Bond!
Similar to the billing I received for that junior high Tom Sawyer, in the closing credits of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the second in the series, all the actors who play the subterranean mutants have real names for their characters, except for Don Pedro Colley, the one black in the cast, who is billed simply as “Negro.” I mean, why bother to give this character a common name when they can just refer to him by what he is? A similar thing was done to Juanita Moore in Witness to Murder (1954), in which the end credits listed her character as “Negress.“
On the TV series “Rescue Me” two of the firefighters in the cast are named Sean. One is white and the other is black. So the other guys refer to the Larenz Tate character as “Black Sean” to distinguish him from the other Sean (portrayed by Steven Pasquale), which they don’t call “White Sean,” by the way. So is the Stephen Foster song character Old Black Joe referred to thus to distinguish him from “Old White Joe” from the same community? I guess that “Old Dan Tucker” must be white then, or they would have said otherwise.
When Mahalia Jackson appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time in 1960, Ed chose to mention in his introduction that Mahalia was “a colored gospel singer.” Now didn’t we already know that? And if we didn’t, we would see for ourselves when she came on. Even his unfamiliar blind viewers would know what she was when they heard her sing. I consider Ed’s little racial citation to be completely unnecessary.
There is an old MGM musical called Give a Girl a Break (1954), in which the star of a new Broadway revue walks out on the show just weeks before the opening. So the producers put an ad in the trade papers appealing for “Girls, Girls, Girls” to replace her. But the only “girls” that show up for this “cattle call” are young, lily-white women. They apparently knew that only their kind would even be considered for the part, so no other faction of society bothers to respond. I mean, it’s the star of a Broadway show. Who else but a white woman would be a suitable replacement? Nowadays, casting notices have to be more specific. They need to designate ethnicity, if there is a required distinction, plus age restrictions and special talents. The marquis outside some female strip joints read “Girls, Girls, Girls,” never “White Girls,” which they always are.
Nowadays finally, there seems to be a complete turnaround, I think, to the point of unreality. Now black actors are almost always the good guys—lots of cops, doctors, lawyers and judges. There must be more black judges in the movies and on TV than there probably are in real life. We now get to play government agents and high-ranking officials, even the President of the United States (and years before we had one for real)! We hardly ever play crooks anymore, except for the occasional drug dealer and regressive characters in nostalgia pieces.
All your thieves—armed robbers, burglars, muggers, purse-snatchers and smugglers—are white again, as well as your rapists, murderers/serial killers and drug lords. Just as in all of the “Columbo” episodes, and there are many, as well as most of the other shows where murders regularly take place, very few have featured a black actor as the guest murderer. “Perry Mason” had one (Georg Stanford Brown), there was one on “Monk” (Jackie Richardson), Robert Guillaume was the killer on a “Diagnosis Murder,” and my high-school acquaintance, Michael Warren, killed four people on an episode of “In the Heat of the Night.”
Now, I’m not complaining, mind you—I consider that a good and positive thing on our behalf. I mean, thanks for not suggesting that all we blacks are cold-blooded, calculating killers. Or maybe they mean to imply that very few black persons are smart enough to concoct such ingenious and elaborate murders. We tend to be more of the in-your-face, spur-of-the-moment type killers. Who has the with-all and patience to dream up a complicated murder scheme? You whites are more adept at that.
The sister witches of the original “Charmed” battled demons on their show on a regular basis, and the casting folks did hire black actors to portray assorted demons, just as they did white. But for whatever their reasons or intent, if, according to TV, no blacks are committing any serious crimes anymore, who are all those black folks making up 90% of the prison population in this country? What it is, of course, you know that there would be critical protest if it was black men committing most of the random crime on screen, as it is already assumed that they are the ones doing it all anyway. But no matter what white people do, they are never labeled or categorized and can always maintain their publicly-regarded righteousness and universal respect. The rest of humankind does not receive such a concession. Whatever white people do, we know that they are not all like that. But whatever anybody else does, then we are all like that.
Of course, there have been other exceptions and surprises over the years. A black actor named Clarence Brooks [1896-1969] played a Caribbean doctor in the 1931 John Ford film Arrowsmith. Among Clarence Muse’s [1889-1979] many films (he had a law degree and a 50-year movie career, as well as being a singer and songwriter), in 1940 he played a concert violinist who was also a family man in a film called Broken Strings.
The original cast of Hal Roach’s Our Gang series (started in 1918) featured Allen Clayton Hoskins [1920-1980] as the then token black youth “Farina,” and later were added Matthew “Stymie” Beard [1925-1989] and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas [1931-1980]. But instead of being foils or servants to the white kids, these boys stood on equal terms with them and was as much a part of the gang as the others. Whereas there is a different attitude with adult blacks and whites, small colored and white children could safely be shown playing together without offending the status quo, as it were. It was all right, too, since all of the children in Our Gang were basically clowns, and this was one of the major roles permitted to blacks anyway.
The Memphis Censor Board, however, wasn’t having it. When Hal Roach attempted to revive Our Gang in 1947 with The Adventures of Curley and His Gang, because it contained an interracial classroom scene, the Board banned the film with this explanation. “To protect the morals and welfare of our city, we are unable to approve your picture with the little Negroes, as the South does not permit Negroes in white schools nor recognize social equality between the races, even in children.” Can they stop? It’s not enough for these bigots to have their own personal feelings about things which they should keep to themselves, they will go out of their way publicly to instill their racist views to the world at large. “This is how we think, so you all should get on board and think the same way we do.”
Another positive exception, though, was an actor named Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison [1912-1989], who was the lone black member of the adult East Side Kids (aka Dead End Kids and Bowery Boys). In Spooks Run Wild (1941)—the only one of the series that I have seen him in so far—he was treated as just one of the gang. He didn’t have to condescend to the other actors and had as many speaking lines as the rest of the cast. I was surprised that he was even there at all, for most producers during that time didn’t even employ arbitrary tokenism when casting for ensembles in films.
Lest we temporarily forget our place, however, they did produce a feature film starring Our Gang, called General Spanky (1936) with a Civil War setting, where they have Buckwheat play a lost “pickaninny” slave in search of a master! In another, the kids put on a neighborhood makeshift circus, and our Buckwheat is assigned to be a sideshow attraction, billed as “Oogy-Boogy, the African Savage.” His only line: “Oogy-boogy!” After I laughed (it was meant to be funny after all), I also shook my head in shame and remorse. Of course, those white Hollywood producers and directors had no shame, in terms of racial sensibility.
In I Married an Angel (1942), a Rodgers and Hart musical film directed by W.S. Van Dyke II and starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, there is a big party scene with music and dancing and white folks galore. All of a sudden I was surprised to see three little black boys appear in very elaborate costumes and singing a refrain of the song being performed at the time. Their appearance to me seemed so incongruous and pointless at the time, but then they ended their bit by sitting on the floor side by side with their legs crossed and recreated the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” pose, ala the pictorial maxim of the Three Wise Monkeys!
I then understood the purpose of these boys’ inclusion in the film–to provide a bit of racist comic relief at black people’s expense. I’ll just bet that they didn’t delete that scene when the movie showed in the South. It probably was put in there for their benefit. Whereas they could care less about the philosophical meaning of it all, I’m sure it delighted them to no end to focus on the monkey aspect of the thing as the payoff. They wouldn’t have minded the boys anyway, as they were performing, and I know how you all love to be entertained by us. “Oh, look at the little singin’ pickaninnies! Ain’t they cute!”
Here is an interesting note, I think. Allen “Farina” Hoskins was born in Boston and schooled in stagecraft, and his perfect enunciation so horrified the director that with the advent of talking pictures, the boy was subsequently reprogrammed to de-sophisticate his language. I guess he didn’t speak and sound “black” enough, you see. I can hear Old Hal now. “Now, Allen, my boy, we’re going to have to do something about the way you talk. That’s just not going to cut it. We can fix your appearance quite easily. We’ll just nap up your hair real good and put some ribbons in it. But you have to work on your speech yourself. Can you sound more, uh, colored? You know how they talk.” Yeah, we do, but apparently you don’t.
I learned that some black actors from Central Casting lost out on certain jobs because their diction was too perfect. They actually hired white coaches to teach them how to speak what became known as “Hollywood black dialect,“ because the movies is the only place that you ever hear it spoken. So these white studio heads set out to teach black actors how to talk “black,” in a dialect that they themselves created! They refused to allow us to rid ourselves of the “Ebonic Plague.” I mean, if they let us talk just like them, people will think that we are as intelligent as they are, thus be worthy of more respect! Of course, if we choose to talk that way now, we still get damned.
This speech convention was not reserved for only blacks either. They did it with the Indians, and Asian characters never spoke normally. Even the famous Charlie Chan, who is supposed to be this intelligent, even brilliant, Chinese detective who is not a foreigner but an American (he is from Honolulu), yet even at his advanced age, he never learned to speak proper English, speaking in incomplete sentences and leaving out pertinent verbs, articles and pronouns. “Excuse, please…Dead body in locked room…Number One Son disappointment.” It seems as if in order to be deemed “exotic,” it has to reflect in the character’s speech as well as their appearance.
Charlie Chan was always portrayed by a Caucasian actor, never by a Chinese or any Asian, but his family–wife and offspring–were always played by Asian actors, who all spoke proper American English without even a trace of accent. But it’s the one white guy, Charlie, who doesn’t talk properly. Now if children most likely learn to speak from their parents, who did Charlie’s kids learn it from? Certainly not from him! And nobody ever called him on it or chastised him for his shameful speech. That is, not until Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976), when Peter Sellers spoofs Charlie Chan as “Sidney Wang” and “Truewoman” Capote as party host, Lionel Twain, lashes into him about his lack of use of articles and pronouns. “You are so exasperating, Mr. Wang. Learn how to talk!“ I thought, Well, it’s about time somebody said something. I love Neil Simon.
There is a ‘30s series of Mr. Wong mysteries, featuring a Chinese detective, in which he was almost always played by Boris Karloff, except for the last film of the series, Phantom in Chinatown (1941), when Keye Luke was cast to play a younger Mr. Wong. You may remember Luke as “Number One Son” in many of the Charlie Chan films. Now why didn’t they let him play Chan instead of those white guys? He certainly was capable and available.
Another instance of traditionally casting a white actor to play an Asian is in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and its musicalized remake The King and I (1956). They managed to fill the sets entirely with Asian extras, adults and children both, but they couldn’t find a single one of them to portray any of the principles? What about the aforementioned Keye Luke and Anna May Wong, to name a couple? So instead, they got the very white Rex Harrison to play the King, Lee J. Cobb as the Kralahome, Gale Sondergaard as Lady Thiang and Linda Darnell as Tuptim.
If I didn’t think that Yul Brynner was the best King there ever was, I would complain of his miscasting as well. And as he was a virtual unknown when he took on the role, they must not have been going for star power. But he made the part his own, I can tell you that, and managed to give 4,625 performances as the King over the course of 30 years. The show’s being a perennial theatrical favorite, most of its productions and revivals nowadays do feature an Asian in the lead role more often than not, except for Lou Diamond Phillips, Christopher Lee and Darren McGavin!
There are a couple of shameful depictions of Asian characters by major stars that I will mention here. The first is none other than the great Marlon Brando, when he deigned (he fought for the role!) to play an Okinawan named Sakini in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Michael Medved in his The Golden Turkey Awards book, says that his characterization in the film comes off as “a cross between Charlie Chan and Don Vito Corleone, using the same breathy mumbling that he later made famous in The Godfather, but enriches it with an all-purpose Oriental accent.”
The other disgraceful performance is Mickey Rooney as Audrey Hepburn’s “Japanese” upstairs neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). In Truman Capote’s book he is described simply as “a gentleman from Japan.” So why didn’t they cast a real Japanese gentleman instead a getting an Anglo actor to do a Hollywood stereotype? Rooney squints his eyes, wears oversized false teeth and a kimono and speaks in an I-guess-what-he-thought-to-be a Japanese accent. I have met many Japanese men, and none are anything like Rooney’s character. I found him to be offensive, as I suppose any self-respecting Japanese person does as well.
Of course, it is all intentional. This being a romantic comedy, they wanted some character comic relief, but why does it always have to be somebody black (or gay) or other ethnicity to provide it? I’m sure that Sessue Hayakawa or James Shigeta would have insisted on playing that part with respectful dignity, but they didn’t want that, and is probably why they weren’t considered. It would seem that white people have no qualms making fun of people who are different from themselves. Mickey must have needed the money very badly to allow himself to be exploited like that.
There is a scene in A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which has Glenn Ford talking on the telephone with someone whom he does not want to know it’s he. So he effects an exaggerated “Japanese” accent, and the guy on the line buys it. When the man confronts Ford later, he tells him that when he called his home, his Japanese servant told him that he was not in. How did he know for sure that the guy was Japanese without seeing him? It was based entirely on a stereotyped parody of a voice heard on the phone. In Lady on a Train (1945) Deanna Durbin actually utters this line, “He had bucked teeth, just like a Jap.” I was not aware that all “Japs” have bucked teeth.
I often wonder if actors have any say-so about some of the lines they are expected to say on screen. As I did with that Finian’s Rainbow that I was in and Hattie McDaniel and others before me, they could have protested. “I’m not saying that. It’s racist, stupid and unnecessary, besides!” What are they going to do, fire their star because they refused to utter an offensive line that has nothing to do with the story? That kind of compliance to me suggests that they (the writer, producer/director and actor) must agree with the particular sentiment or action.
During the Hollywood studio system, some of their actors were not even allowed to be what they really were. While she was Margarita Cansino, all she could play were Latina parts. So in order for her to be a star, they had to transform her ethnic persona to make her more “white.” They made her a redhead and changed her facial features. With a name change to go with it, she then became Rita Hayworth. Nowadays, Latina entertainers wouldn’t think of doing such a thing, nor would anybody want or expect them to.
American Indians, too, got fucked over by the Hollywood system. In Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), for example, the black characters in the film were given more respect than the Indians! Even the blacks were poking fun at them and perpetuating Indian stereotypes, with guidance from the white producers, I’m sure.
The nursery rhyme which provides the basis for Agatha Christie’s novel and play Ten Little Indians was originally entitled Ten Little Niggers, but I suppose some subsequent P.C. sensitivity caused it to be changed to the other title. They must have considered Indians to be less offensive, or really didn’t care if it wasn’t. Thankfully, even that title has since been changed to the non-specific And Then There Were None, and the doomed characters of the poem have been upgraded to “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, as said boys could not be real soldiers. They are only children, after all, so they must be playing at being soldiers. One can get to be too P.C. to the point of illogicality.
In Annie Get Your Gun (1950) Buffalo Bill Cody has befriended Chief Sitting Bull and his Sioux tribesmen and is allowing them to participate in his touring Wild West Show. While traveling by train, the Indians are relegated to their own car and are not encouraged to mingle with the white folks. During their performances, Indian spectators have to watch in the designated area with the big sign, “Indians Stand Here.” So, not only did they segregate them, they wouldn’t even provide seating for them.
It was once pointed out to me that Woody Allen, one of my favorite filmmakers, never uses black people in any of his movies. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, because in his Take the Money and Run (1969), there were several blacks who appeared in the film with him. There was a little boy shining shoes in one scene, a big, brutish-looking street thug, a couple of pool hustlers and a few prison convicts. I have even caught sight of a black maid or two in some of his later films. In Bananas (1971) afro-coifed Dorthi Fox (who?!) has a bit part as a witness during a trial scene, and I saw one black man on the jury.
The more well-known Geoffrey Holder was in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). Several blacks appear in Sleeper (1973), including a female party guest whom Woody’s character makes out with. There is a scene in his Love and Death (1975) with a black drill instructor blessing out Woody, but being a bit part, it’s also played by an unknown, as well as the two unknown black extras with whom Woody was trying to assimilate in Zelig (1983), and some black extras appear in Manhattan (1979) as well as Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). The Allen film that I worked on, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), I didn’t actually appear in—only my voice was used. But singer/pianist Bobby Short made an appearance in the film, playing himself.
Woody at last did feature a number of black and even Asian players in the musical numbers of his Everyone Says I Love You (1996). They were used in natural settings, as street people and hospital personnel, for example, and I spied several black extras in Midnight in Paris (2011). He did give Hazelle Goodman (who?!) a more substantial part of a hooker (with whom Woody’s character had sex, no less!) in his Deconstructing Harry (1997). Before he became an Oscar nominee for 12 Years a Slave (2013), Chiwetel Ejiofor, has a prominent role in Melinda and Melinda (2005), as well as does Daniel Sunjata. So Woody has used blacks often. Why he has not cast more major, well-known black actors in a starring or featured role in any of his films, is anybody’s guess. I don’t know, having not spoken to him about it. Maybe some have been asked, but they all turned him down, perhaps. Or maybe he prefers to use unknowns and minor actors over the big stars, which is his prerogative.
Whenever a movie needs a token sacrifice, who is the first, and sometimes only, one that they will kill off? The Negro or the queer, who else? They will sometimes even write a black or gay character into the script, just to have somebody to kill! Of course, horror and mystery film villains still prey on women, too, for the most part. It’s their way of reminding us who the less-than-first-class citizens are and who they deem socially dispensable.
Here’s an example that comes to mind. Anyone who has read Stephen King’s The Shining and saw the 1980 movie version too, knows of the many changes of plot elements made by director Stanley Kubrick. There are only four main characters in the story, the Torrance family—father, mother, and 5-year-old boy—and the black hotel chef named Hallorann, played by Scatman Crothers in the movie. Spoiler Alert! For those unfamiliar with the story, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), along with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd), take jobs as the off-season caretakers at a haunted resort hotel in Colorado. Jack is possessed by the evil spirits in the hotel in no time and becomes a real nutcase, and by the end of the movie is chasing his family through the house and an outdoor garden maze with intent to kill them. This being a thriller, somebody has to die, and we can’t kill Shelley, the costar, or the little boy, and the producers did not want either of them to be depicted as murderers themselves. So who’s left? “I know, let’s kill the shvartzer!” In King’s book, Hallorann is the hero of the story by rescuing the two from crazy Jack and getting them out of the hotel before it blows up. In the movie version, however, Jack kills Hallorann. Better that the insignificantly-deemed black man dies rather than any of the white stars of the film.
Even in King’s TV movie, The Langoliers, the cast of ten included one black man (Frankie Faison) whose only purpose in the story was to be murdered (at least in the movie version; I haven’t read the book) by the mentally-disturbed member of the group (Bronson Pinchot). There were only three other deaths: the title monsters had to kill somebody, so of course, they ate their creator; there was one sympathy death of a blind girl and one sacrificial suicide. But of the four, the black guy was the first to go.
One near exception was the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which the one black person in the film is the last surviving hero. I have mixed feelings about the ending, however, because although I like the ironic twist that he manages to defeat and survive all the zombies, only to be shot and killed by a live redneck with a rifle, the fact remains that they still kill off the single black guy!
My mother told me about a storyline years ago on her favorite daytime drama, “The Young and the ‘Breastless‘” (I never watched it myself), about a breakout of AIDS among some of the characters. Now the show had only a few black characters as it was, but who do you think were the first to contract the AIDS and die? Why, the black characters, of course! We are all diseased anyway, you know.
Although film queerdom is still a white thing, for the most part, at least it has been acknowledged from time to time that there are black gays in the world. But whenever there is a black male homosexual character depicted on screen, why is he almost always the nelly, flaming sissy, drag queen or transsexual variety? They must figure, why not present a negative image of both blacks and gays at the same time whenever we can? I am not saying that that is a negative image, necessarily, but somebody must think that it is, is why they are presented that way. They can’t think that we all find it a flattering depiction. Those who don’t know any better even may come to think that all black, gay men are screaming queens. Two recent, current exceptions are Andre Braugher on “Brooklyn Nine Nine” and Kevin Daniels on “Sirens,” who play normal, inoffensive gay characters.
In the case of homosexuals in films, more often than not, they either killed themselves out of self-loathing or got horribly murdered, as if that is what they deserved. Was this some kind of cinematic social justice? Of course, I’m talking about earlier films. Fortunately, in more recent years there has been a big change in attitude with the way gays are treated on screen, in that respect.
In fact, film and especially TV have become the epitome of racial diversity and general human tolerance as well. Still somewhat unrealistic but at least in a positive vein, characters tend not to be racist or bigoted anymore. It’s not even an issue. Interracial relationships, dating and even marriage are so commonplace now, color and ethnicity do not seem to matter to anybody. Since TV seems to set the standards for social behavior and attitudes, maybe it will catch on in the real world as well toward total universal acceptance. I only hope that I live long enough to experience it.
[Related articles: Black History, Part 1–Did You Know?; Black History, Part 2–Slavery and Its Aftermath; Black History, Part 4–Criminal Injustice; Black History, Part 5–Biased Concerns; Color Issues; Some Racial Observations and Assessments; Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise; Walt Disney, a Racist? Who’d’ve Thunk It?]