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Blacks & the Entertainment Industry


 Hollywood got the message more than three decades ago that it should feature more roles for black people and other minorities, but still hasn't figured out exactly how to do this.

In the 1940's and 1950's, black actors had to play dumb for roles as nannies and servants. In the 1960's and 1970's, they were featured mainly as gangsters, pimps and prostitutes in gritty police movies that wanted to establish realism by showing white cops in a Harlem setting.

When Hollywood got the message that this was racist and humiliating, certain roles written for white actors became reserved for blacks. One cop movie after another protrayed a black police chief; there were more black police chiefs in the movies than in all the major cities of America. There were more black mayors and FBI agents than there were in the real world. There was the black friend, the black next door neighbor, the black sidekick (a example is the role played by Samuel Jackson in the third Diehard). These movies give the pleasant impression that there is little or no racism in the world; most notable are the ones set in violent, jingoistic surroundings from the American past, revised to create equal opportunity. In Westerns of recent years, black cowboys walk into the saloon, mingle, and enter gunfighting contests with no-one treating them any differently than anyone else. Now, we know there were more than a few black cowboys in the West, but do these movies teach us anything about the actual circumstances of their lives? It is hard to believe the West was enlightened, that whites welcomed blacks, perhaps, as their partners in wiping out the Indians. Of course, the Indians themselves are equal partners in the general enterprise in some of these movies.

But outside of Hollywood there was a independent movement of African-American filmmakers ready to give their stories the same and sometimes even more depth than their white counterparts

The Beginning - 1910-1926

William Foster became interested in theater while living in New York City in 1884. In 1910 he moved to Chicago, started the Foster Photoplay Company, and began making short films with all-black casts. Since he didn't have any camera equipment, he borrowed some from a local camera store owner. And as stage manager for the Pekin Theater, he was able to recruit actors from the company.

Foster's first films were Birth Mask, The Butler, and The Railroad Porter. He wrote, directed, and filmed most of the movies himself, but he had to rely on financing from white backers. He made eighteen films altogether, and although they were never successful, he continued to insist African-American filmmakers should make movies with black actors for a black audience.

In 1914 an independent black film company released a movie called "Darktown Jubilee", starring the comedian Bert Williams. A screening of the movie in Brooklyn produced shouts, catcalls, and a near race riot. Realizing white audiences were not ready for African-American movie stars, the producers took the film out of circulation. The weird thing being that Bert Williams appeared in the film in blackface.

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company was the first production company to make serious movies for a black audience. It was founded in 1916 by the actors Noble Johnson and Clarence Brooks and a prosperous druggists, James T Smith, Johnson's brother George soon joined the organization. The only white partner was the cameraman, Harry T. Gant, who filmed all the company's productions.

They wanted to produce movies which presented Blacks "in his everyday life, a human being with human inclination and one of talent and intellect."  Lincoln's first venture was "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition", starring Noble Johnson as a Tuskegee Institute engineering graduate who leaves his sweetheart to travel to California where he makes a fortune and then returns to marry the girl back home and live happily ever after. Despite the high quality of it's movies, Lincoln was often unable to persuade white theater owners to show them. By 1923, financial and distribution problems forced
the company to dissolve.

Race Movies - 1927-1948

The year of 1927 ushered in a new era in the motion picture industry. The use of sound films or the "talkies" was the new technique connecting the silent staged scenes in movies to the voices of actors and the action of those scenes. The usage of blackface in sound films was still a carry over from the silent films when depicting African-Americans in movie roles. The old minstrel shows of entertainment by using exaggerated black characters was also a continued trend.

The popular rendition of Al Jolson as the Jazz Singer, produced in 1927, and two white sisters, Rosetta Duncan (in blackface) and Vivian Duncan (in natural face), as Topsy and Eva in 1927 dealt with Whites in characterizations of Blacks. In the sound films, the actors were forced to be convincing or sensitive or silly and stereotypic. Soon the black dialect and "suitable" musical talents of both black and white actors had to fit into the making of "talkie" motion pictures. Entertainment had to be more convincing by phasing
out the blackfaced white actors and the use of more "suitable" African-Americans in black character roles. Hollywood was not interested in making Positive Image Movies about African-Americans -- they saw them as "risky" undertakings; therefore the major roles available to black actors were maids, walkons, butlers, servants, or comics. Remember: blackface was still in vogue, and it could sell movie

And, fortunately, even in those dark times there were bright spots. One of the brightest in early Hollywood was Paul Robeson. Proudly, Paul Robeson was a phillyBurbian, born and raised in Princeton and attending Rutgers college as the third black student admitted to that institution. He wad won a four-year scholarship to the school and by all accounts excelled not just academically but athletically as well, gaining the admiration, respect and friendship of his classmates. He graduated as valedictorian and moved on to Columbia Law School. He graduated from Columbia and became a clerk in a law firm before taking the bar. However, he encountered such overt racism that he turned his back on a legal career and turned his attention to the stage.

His first film role was as the lead in his film "Body And Soul" in 1925; he then abandoned the screen for a number of years, during which he performed in England as the first black Othello. At the time, he told English reporters that such a performance would be impossible in the United States - for a black man to kiss a white woman, even in character, could lead to anger and violence in the theater. After his run in Othello, he was given the role of "Joe" in the London production of "Showboat." The audience was bowled over; on top of everything else, Robeson had one fantastic set of pipes. It is said that Roger Hammerstein wrote "Ol' Man River" especially with him in mind. The reviews made waves across the Atlantic.

He returned to America and was given a new chance to find stardom in "Emperor  Jones." Robeson had played the main character during a Broadway revival in 1924 and in London in 1925, and was asked to recreate the role for United Artists. As a tangential aside, his leading actress, also black, was filmed wearing dark pancake because her skin was too light - UA was afraid that the public might think he was embracing a white woman.

To his great credit, Robeson was an active humanist, forwarding the cause of ending apartheid in South Africa as early as 1947; more than 45 years before the political system was finally dismantled in 1993. Unfortunately for him, America was under the control of Senator Joe McCarthy at the time, and doing good things for others proved that you were a dangerous Commie. Robeson's career was all but
extinguished. He moved to Philadelphia where he died in 1976.

Also a bright spot - albeit as only seen through a long lens - was the spate of musical entertainment films that filled theaters during the depression. These films introduced artists like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie to a wider audience, essentially forcing white America to recognize that the black culture had something undeniable to offer. Sure, it may not seem like much, but every bridge has to start somewhere.


The motion picture industry was never too quick to change their approach in presenting African-Americans in realistic roles depicting social or civil conditions in an integrated context. Many of these roles required scenes showing African-Americans in positions of authority or relating to white Americans in a positive way. This Integration Period therefore brought together African-American actors with scenes along side white actors in roles showing both players dealing with racial conflict and resolution. Between 1946 and 1949, attendance at the local movie theaters began to sag due to more home TV watching. Visual entertainment was shifting toward TV shows, therefore new ideas in the motion picture
industry became important to its survival.

The story of Lena Horne is a good summary of that time. Born in New York City, Lena started singing at the Cotton Club at 16, and became a headliner in the club by the time she became an adult. She did Broadway on and off, and her recognition in New York led to offers in Hollywood. MGM signed her to a contract and put her in the movies. Sorta. They'd give her parts that were specially designed to "tear-away," so they could ditch her character entirely. That way, the Southern states didn't have to see no black woman on the big screen. Not surprisingly this seems to be the reason why Horne didn't get the part of Julie in the MGM version of "Showboat." That part - a part of a mulatto, light skinned black - went
instead to the very white Ava Gardner, who practiced her parts singing along with Lena Horne records.
Another movie Horne was passed on was "Pinky," a film concerning a black woman "passing" for white. The lead role went to a white woman. In fact, both of the "passing" films of 1949 starred white women in the lead roles, which pretty much embodies the concept of "a Hollywood conscience;" what good is addressing an issue while ignoring the problem itself?

1950 saw Hollywood presenting the story of a black middle class family. In No Way Out, Sidney Poitier is seen as the successful Dr. Luther Brooks, MD. The cast included young Ossie Davis, Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Stephen McNally, and Frederick O'Neal.

1953 put Dorothy Dandridge in the spotlight in the role as a school teacher in the movie, Bright Road. Harry Belafonte was the school principal.

1955 saw Sidney Poitier as the tough high school kid, Gregory Miller, in Blackboard Jungle. Glenn Ford was his teacher. Sidney Poitier went on to establish himself as one of the best actors coming out of Hollywood

"Nothing But a Man" is a 1964 movie about a man in the south who wants to be treated as "nothing but a man", instead of a "boy". It stars Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln and a young Yaphet Koddo. It is one of the first films to deal with racism as the center of the plot. "Nothing But a Man" was reputedly the favorite film of Malcolm X.

Ivan Dixon also appeared on TV shows in the 60's like" The Twilight Zone" and was a original cast
member of "Hogan's Heroes," always portraying the character of a strong black man. He would later direct "The Spook Who Sat By The Door" in 1973

Jim Brown, the former college and professional football star from the Cleveland Browns, came to the silver screen in 1964. He later made his mark in the 1967 movie, "The Dirty Dozen," with Lee Marvin and Telly Savalas. Jim Brown was able to do what many African-American males had previously been denied. He portrayed on the silver screen a black male being aggressive, hip, smart, and playing the big black buck. He was one of the first African-American actors to play romantic love scenes with white female actresses.

Poking fun and dealing with issues of race has always been a concern when depicting complex situations of color in motion pictures. Looking back at the horrors of the actors in early movie blackface, the not-so-funny can easily become discernable business. Therefore, the talented comics had to
be funny at the ultimate price of not being seriously offensive. They had to know what was universally funny and how to keep the movie audiences laughing but also remembering the identifiable message. Keeping it real and never offensive, these talented comics became treasures of Laughter.

Godfrey Cambridge was born in New York City to parents who were immigrants from British Guiana. Cambridge appeared both on stage and screen. His most memorable film role was in Melvin Van Peeble's "Watermelon Man" where he plays the lead character, a white bigot who one day wakes up
and discovers his skin color has turned to black. He also had a starring role in the 1970 Ossie Davis adaptation of the Chester Himes novel "Cotton Comes to Harlem" of the same name.

In addition to acting, Cambridge was a well-known standup comedian who appeared on The Tonight Show and other television shows. His routines were imbued with biting sarcasm and trenchant topical humor that was common in comedic circles at the time. He was noted for comic lapses from standard
educated speech to Black street-speak. Godfrey Cambridge died of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 43 while on the set of the movie "Victory at Entebbe," in which he was to portray Idi Amin. Amin claimed Cambridge's death was "punishment from God."

Experimentation - 1970's

By 1970, African-Americans were firmly in the doors of Hollywood. There were enough purely black themes to play in movies, but also many, many crossover roles were available. It was not strange anymore to see a black actor or actress dressed up as a lawyer or doctor. The African-American
was ready to be portrayed as part of America's everyday occurrences. Something else happened at the beginning of the 1970's -- African-Americans could now play strong roles as detectives, cowboys, superheroes, supervillains, and black bucks. Black violence, black comedy, and a host of "blaxploitation" films which had begun in the Sixties were still in vogue, but they expanded into the Seventies.

1971 brought to the silver screen a successive series of superhero black or "blaxploitation" films. Shaft was released in 1971, and Richard Roundtree was the superman black hero detective. He was compared by many to the white James Bond. Gordon Parks was the movie director for Shaft which
took hold and became a box office success with both black and white moviegoers.

1971 also saw Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, directed, written, and acted by Melvin Van Peebles in the leading role. The film was said to be a favorite of The Black Panther Party and was regularly played at party functions. It tells the story of a deprived black man on his flight from the white
authority. Van Peebles began to develop the film after being offered a three-picture contract for Columbia Pictures. Because no studio would finance the film, Van Peebles funded the film himself, shooting it independently over a period of 19 days, performing all of his own stunts and appearing in several
unsimulated sex scenes. Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea when filming one of the many sex scenes, and successfully applied to the director's guild in order to get workers' compensation because he was "hurt on the job." Van Peebles used the money to purchase more film.

Van Peebles gained additional funds from a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to complete the film. The film's fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were unique features in American cinema at the time. The film was censored in some markets, and received mixed critical reviews. The film is an important work in the history of American cinema. It paved the way for the success of future independent black films. It demonstrated to Hollywood that films which portrayed "militant" blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the blaxplotation genre, although the film itself is not commonly considered to be an exploitation film. The end of the film was shocking to black viewers who had expected that Sweetback
would perish at the hands of the police—a common, even inevitable, fate of black men "on the run" in prior films.

After the succes of "Sweetback", Hollywood studios flooded the market with so-called "baxploitation" films. They usually featured former football players such as Jim Brown, Bernie Casy and Fred Willianson as the male leads. There is only a handful of these films that have stood the test of time, but the rest are
still entertaining.

The 1970's were a bit ignorant, but mostly excusable. In many a person's eyes, black film plus 70's equals roughly none other than black exploitation. The success of the film, Shaft gave way to the stream of even more campy black films, such as Blacula, Superfly, Black Godfather, Cleopatra Jones,Black Caesar, Blackenstein, you name it, they made it. The films were fun, but a far cry from serious. What was probably the sole landmark film back then in the subject of civil rights was television's Roots,about a slave and his descendants. This film helped shed light on the evil of slavery, and the fact that African-Americans have suffered since they first met White America. (Source) 

WHAT IS BLACKFACE? (Click here to view filmclip)

Blackface, in the narrow sense, is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used by caucasian performers to take on the appearance of African Americans, especially stereotypes of the happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation or the dandified coon. Blackface in the broader sense includes similarly stereotyped performances even when they do not involve blackface makeup.Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular overseas, particularly so in Britain where the tradition lasted even longer than in the US.[2] In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, but it predates that tradition, and it survived long past the heyday of the minstrel show. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface.Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.

By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device, mostly outside the U.S., and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of African-American culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s world popular culture. (SOURCE)


Minstrel show stage entertainment by white performers made up as blacks. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who gave (c.1828) the first solo performance in blackface and introduced the song-and-dance act Jim Crow, is called the "father of American minstrelsy." The first public performance of a minstrel show was given in 1843 by the Virginia Minstrels, headed by Daniel Decatur Emmett. Christy\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s Minstrels (for whom Stephen Foster wrote some of his most popular songs) appeared in 1846, headed by Edwin P. Christy . In the first part of the minstrel show the company, in blackface and gaudy costumes, paraded to chairs placed in a semicircle on the stage. The interlocutor then cracked jokes with the end men, and, for a finale, the company passed in review in the "walk around." This part of the minstrel show caricatured the black man, representing him by grotesque stereotypes that were retained in the minds of white American audiences for many decades. In the second part of the show vaudeville or olio (medley) acts were presented. The third or afterpart was a burlesque on a play or an opera. The minstrel show was at its peak from 1850 to 1870 but passed with the coming of vaudeville, motion pictures, and radio. (SOURCE)

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