I have friends and acquaintances who are regular movie-goers. Every time a new movie comes out, they must see it. They take pride in letting others know they were among the first to view a particular movie. Unfortunately, too many of them annoy those who have not seen it by telling them details, particularly how a suspenseful movie ends.
This is not a problem for me, as I am not big on the movies. While I do not want to take anything away from movies I have seen and enjoyed over the years such as “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Malcolm X,” the last great movie I saw was “The Dirty Dozen.” This army story involved a dozen convicted murderers who trained for a mass assassination mission of German officers in World War II; it featured Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Clint Walker, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland. Now, I suspect you are just laughing, because this movie goes back to 1967. In spite of a lack of interest in movies, my Blackness leads me to see those with a Black theme. For me, watching the Oscars occurs for the most part when a Black movie or performer has been nominated for an award.
Some months ago, after I watched “Red Tails,” my mind went back to the days when Blacks only played movie roles that were stereotypical, roles that were demeaning, roles that were the only ones Blacks could play. Thus, I thought it would fun, while at the same time educational, to reflect on Blacks who were in films back in the day.
Ask your family members and friends to name Black actors and actresses from the past. I bet Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne would be the most frequently mentioned. Actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte would be popular choices. While all of these were on the screen during my era, some of you young folk may have thought Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were the first Blacks on the big screen. Clearly, this is not the case. Even though Blacks were relegated to inferior roles, find the movie “Carmen Jones” on a DVD or a television channel that carries vintage movies and you will admire their talent as well as their looks. Belafonte was one good-looking brother and Dandridge one of the most attractive women of any race as she was seen in this 1954 movie, and without a doubt, very talented. Did you know that she was the first Black nominated for Best Actress for her “Carmen Jones” performance? Poitier’s portrayal of a Northern detective in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” was truly outstanding. As for Horne, she had it all; she was a talented singer, a capable actress and like Dandridge, an outstanding beauty. Many more Blacks also found their way to Hollywood. Their names are vague memories, as their acting debuts occurred back in the day.
I know the husband-and-wife acting team of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee is familiar to some of you. Each appeared in 50-plus full-length films, several times in the same one. How many of you recall Davis’ movies from the early 1950s, “No Way Out” or “The Joe Louis Story”? Perhaps these go back too far, but “Jungle Fever” and Malcolm X” are probably movies you actually saw. Do you remember Dee’s performance in “That Man of Mine,” released in 1946? Even though I was but a teenager, I recall her in “The Jackie Robinson Story” from 1950. This team appeared in Spike
Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever.” “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which Dee appeared, is indeed a classic. It was based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry about a poor, Black family that wanted to leave the city for the suburbs. In 2005, this film was selected for reservation in the United States of America National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. I have no doubt that there are many other performers who are familiar to you. Here are just a few, and let me have a little fun by challenging you to identify the movies in which they appeared. How about Brock Peters, Adolph Caesar, Cicely Tyson, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Al Freeman Jr., Paul Winfield, Billy Dee Williams, Danny Glover and Forest Whittaker? Which one appeared in “To Kill a Mockingbird?” What about “The Color of Money” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”? Now, I know you can identify the actor associated with “Driving Miss Daisy.” I would love to see your reaction to Carol Channing’s being included in this list of Blacks in the movies. You may recall her performance in “Hello Dolly.” What you may not know, however, is that Channing presented herself as white and passed as white, but her grandmother was a Black American.
If you follow my column, you know I am a big fan of “Amos ’n’ Andy.” Even though it was only a television series, I cannot omit actors of this show such as Tim Moore, George “Kingfish” Stevens; Spencer Williams Jr., Andy Brown; Nick Stewart, Lightnin’; and John D. Lee, the shyster lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun. While we ran away from this hysterically funny show with superb acting, so annoying to many that it was eventually removed from the air, we embraced those Black stereotypical and exploitative movies like “Superfly,” “Black Caesar,” “Shaft,” “Cotton Comes To Harlem,” “Come Back Charleston Blue,” Foxy Brown,” “Sweetback” and “Coffie.” In spite of your feelings about “Amos ’n’ Andy” and my feelings about Black exploitation films, at least these actors, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques, had acting jobs back in the day.
Do you realize how many singers, comedians and professional athletes that became actors and actresses? Take a look at this list: Jim Brown, Bill Cosby, O.J. Simpson, Sammy Davis, Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Willie Strode, Paul Robeson, Redd Foxx, Eartha Kitt, Abbey Lincoln, Moms Mabley, Della Reese, Ella Fitzgerald, Richard Pryor, Diana Ross, Eddie Murphy and Leslie Uggams. I am mainly intrigued by those Black men and women who were pioneers in the struggle for Blacks to show their acting skills. Most of these names are probably strange to you. While they found their way to Hollywood, the sad aspect of their participation on the big screen was in roles in which they were depicted as maids, butlers, cooks or buffoonery characters. While there was no glory as with today’s stars, people like Stepin’ Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ethel Waters, Louise Beavers, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, Willie Best, Ruby Dandridge, Dusty Fletcher, Bert Williams and “Our Gang” child personalities Allen Clayton Hoskins as “Farina” and Billie Thomas as “Buckwheat” had their start and survived in roles that most of us despised then and despise today. But of all of the early Black actresses, at least three should receive special attention. They are Juanita Moore, Hattie McDaniel and Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen. Even if you are not a movie enthusiast, these should be familiar to you. How could you not remember Moore for her performance in the 1959 remake of “Imitation of Life?” For the younger generation, try to get your hands on this tear-jerking film where Moore’s daughter passes for white. Her performance won her a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniel and McQueen appeared in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” both portrayed as mammy/maid-type figures. McDaniel was the first Black to win an Academy Award; for Best Supporting Actress. While many Blacks complained about her role as a maid, I like what she said in response: “Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one!” If you reflect on movies where these men and women played demeaning roles, they often demonstrated they were smarter and wiser than their white counterparts.
As I neared completion of this column, my thoughts went back to March 24, 2002, when I sat in front of my television to watch the Academy Awards. Like many of my brothers and sisters, I became full of pride when not one, but two Blacks received awards; Halle Berry for Best Actress and Denzel Washington for Best Actor. I also could not ignore the success of those Blacks who are making their presence known on the screen today like Angela Bassett, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé Knowles. But I do not want to forget and ask that you not forget that the accomplishments of our modern actors and actresses are a result of the paths paved for them through the tenaciousness and sacrifices of those who played those demeaning and stereotypical roles, the only parts they could play, back in the day.