African American Women in Early Film
In early film many African American actresses portrayed roles as mammies, slaves, seductresses, and maids. These roles suppressed them not allowing them to show their true talents. Although they had to take on these degrading roles, they still performed with dignity, elegance, grace and style. They paved the way for many actresses to follow both blacks and whites. These women showed the film industry that they were more than slaves, mammies, and maids. These beautiful actresses showed the film industry that they are able to hold lead parts and even carry the whole cast if need be. Phenomenal actresses such as Hattie McDaniels, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Waters, Nina Mae McKinney, and Dorothy Dandridge, to name a few, are African-American stars who paved the way for so many African-American actresses today despite the hardships that they were faced with. These women displayed beauty, intellect and talent, which allowed the stars that followed that they do not have to just settle for stereotypical roles. In early film there was much propaganda and even today, which lead to these demeaning roles that they had to betray, Professor Carol
Penney of Yale-New Haven writes, "Film is one of the most influential means of communication and a powerful medium of propaganda. Race and representation is central to the study of the black film actor, since the major studios reflected and reinforced the racism of their times. The depiction of blacks in Hollywood movies reinforced many of the prejudices of the white majority rather than objective reality, limiting black actors to stereotypical roles" (1).
Hattie McDaniels, a trailblazer amongst African-American film, acquired many firsts for African-American actors. McDaniels was the first African-American to sing on the radio, first to receive an Oscar for best supporting actress in Gone with the Wind. She was also the first African-American to star in a sitcom in 1951 that featured an African-American actress in the title role (Pax 1). "McDaniels appeared in more than three hundred films during the twenties and thirties. Her career was built on the Mammy' image, a role she played with dignity" (Smith 7). She received much flack from the blacks because of the roles she played in film and on radio. Blacks felt that she was degrading the race but her reply was to these views were, "Hell I'd rather play a maid than be one" (Encyclopedia of World Biography 406).
After her acclaim role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, McDaniels was never paid anything less than $31,000 for a performance. This was much for an African-American as well as a white entertainer. Even though she broke that barrier McDaniel was still oppressed by racism not only on film, but also off film. She was
faced with racial legal problems when trying to acquire a home in Los Angeles. At that time there was a limited black land and home ownership right. Though she won the suite she still was subjected to racial hostility from her neighbors. McDaniels experience oppressions of many types during her career, but she continued to take the mammy roles but played them with dignity and respect. In spite of her being the mammy, McDaniels made sure that her characters had the "upper hand". After McDaniels death the mammy roles died with her.
Pearl Bailey, the "Ambassador of Love" career took off on Washington's U street at the age of fifteen years of age. She started off as a singer and appeared in many nightclubs. In the mid-30's she performed with the Noble Sissle's Band in the Village Vanguard and Blue Angel Club. In the 40's she was the lead singer for Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Cootie Williams. She debuted on Broadway in St. Louis Blue; she won honors for as Broadway's best newcomer. After her debut on Broadway films she performed in Variety Girl, Isn't It Romantic, Carmen Jones, and Porgy and Bess. "In 1967 she won a Tony Award for heading the all-black...
Cited: The African-American Almanac, 1997. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 10&16. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
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