I did say I was going to come through with some black history posts for black history month didn’t I? Here I am!
I did some research and a lot of thought about what I wanted to do with my first black history post for this month (even though I know black history month is nearly over). I thought about maybe doing a fact and talking about it, or talking about music, art – anything that would come to mind. Finally, I settled on talking about Hollywood – but not current Hollywood obviously. I want to talk about black Hollywood during a time where the African-American community were not seen as equal to their white counterparts, and I also want to name a few black actors and actresses as well as directors, writers, and so on, who paved the way for today’s version of “black Hollywood”.
So, here we go…
Early Hollywood rose to popularity during a time where segregation and racial stereotypes were still the “norm” in America. African-Americans during this time were often servants or maids, rushing to the service of their white counterparts/owners/bosses. The racial stereotype formed that this was what African-Americans did – they were simply maids or sharecroppers or servants – jobs of that nature. Early Hollywood adopted this stereotype and often, this is what any African-Americans who “dreamed of stardom” were subject to. A majority of roles included roles as maids and servants; these were the roles that African-Americans were given if they dreamed of success.
Perhaps one of the most famous African-American actresses of Early Hollywood was Ms. Hattie McDaniel. If this name is unfamiliar; I shall give you some background information quickly. McDaniel was best known for her role as Mammy in the 1939 film adaptation of the novel, Gone with the Wind. For this role, McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, being the first African-American to win this award. However, this alone was insight as to how African-Americans were treated in Early Hollywood. Unfortunately, the hotel where the awards were held had a “no blacks” policy, but McDaniel could enter due to the awards. However, even inside she was not given fair treatment. She was seated at a table near the far wall; a segregated table for two – though her white agent apparently made a bold statement by joining McDaniel and her escort at the table. While many African-Americans were happy about McDaniel’s personal victory, they still felt bittersweet about the win overall due to their belief that Gone with the Wind celebrated the slave system. Some African-Americans felt as though McDaniel only won due the fact that she did not object against Hollywood’s racial stereotypes (blacks being given roles as maids and servants).
Hattie was of course given many other roles, but most them were domestics – maids or servants. This was the racial stereotype of the time, partly because the jobs that many African-Americans were given anyway. There were other famous actors and actresses who bravely took on roles of racial stereotypes to open the door for African Americans.
The first male actor to win an Honorary Academy Award was James Baskett, best known for his role as Uncle Remus in the 1946 film, Song of the South. While Baskett was criticized by many African Americans were accepting what they considered to be such a “demeaning” role, Baskett took the role with stride. His acting was praised by many, and this opened the door for other African-Americans to step into Hollywood.
Sidney Poitier is another African-American acting pioneer. By the end of 1949, Poitier was given a choice between leading roles on sage in theater, and an offer to work for Darryl F. Zanuck in the 1950 film, No Way Out. Poitier ultimately chose to play in the film, and his role as a doctor treating a Caucasian patient led to him being noticed more and more. The attention led to the offer of more roles, the roles being more interesting and prominent than most roles offered to African-Americans at the time. His breakout role, however, was in the 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle, as a member of a high school class.
Poitier was the first male actor of African descent to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, for his role in the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones. However, Poitier did receive the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Perhaps some of his most famous roles include his role as Walter Younger in the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, as well as this same role in the 1961 film version. In 1967, Poitier was considered the most successful draw at the box office with the three films, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir with Love, and In the Heat of the Night. Poitier was later given an Honorary Academy Award in 2002, for his overall contribution to American cinema.
While this post only goes in depth with a few African-American old Hollywood elites, there are so many who have spoken out against the stereotypes about African Americans brought on by production companies and writers of films and shows. For example, for the popular 1970s African-American sitcom, Good Times, the original concept of the show painted Florida Evans as a single mother with children – this being a common stereotype among the African-American community, which has always been painted as a community with “single parent households”. However, Esther Rolle (who portrayed Florida Evans), debated with the writers about having a father figure and husband added to the show. Rolle also fought for more relevant themes to the show, but was also unhappy with the stereotypical way that the character of JJ Evans was painted. She ultimately quit after her contract ended, but returned for the sixth and final season of the show. Rolle is another early Hollywood pioneer who fought back against the stereotypical way that characters were painted in films and television shows.
(Johnson brothers [Only Noble Johnson pictured])
In the early 1900s, George and Noble Johnson were two brothers living pretty normal lives – Noble was a small time actor while George was a post office employee. However, these two men were determined to make a production company that produced films for black audiences, to give African-Americans a voice. This small company left a mark on the history of black cinema. The company, Lincoln Motion Picture Company, was founded in Omaha and in 1916, the first film was released via the company – The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition. While the company only released 5 films before closing in 1921, this was yet another means for other African-Americans to cater to black audiences and give African-Americans a voice in film.
Oscar Michaeux was an African-American writer, producer, and director of over 44 films between 1919 and 1948. Michaeux was never afraid to stir up controversy, as his films dealt with the struggle for African-Americans to be equal in such a hostile world. His films depicted lynchings of African Americans and rape of black women by white men. Michaeux was one artist who paved the way for many black directors to come. In fact, his film Within Our Gates, is often thought to be a response to the D.W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation.
(Maria P. Williams)
And perhaps the final vintage black Hollywood pioneer I want to touch on is Maria P. Williams. Williams is considered the first black woman to direct and produce a film; this of course being an incredible and ground breaking achievement as female directors faced and continue to face obstacles in Hollywood. Williams film was a crime drama entitled Flames of Wrath, and was released in 1923.
Though this post only touches on a few African-American Hollywood pioneers, there are many that should not be forgotten. These few alone helped to pave the way and set the bar for many of our African-American Hollywood elites today, and have proved to be inspirations to many in Hollywood now and the next generation to come. In a place that should have been like a dream come true, African-Americans continued to face struggles presented by a segregated and stereotype-driven America, but they stood their grounds and continued to break down barriers to speak to their White counterparts.
These are a few of the many vintage black Hollywood legends; we must not forget them.