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African American Women in Hollywood Essay

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 cast of Hello Dolly! A role that allowed her, she said, ?

to sing, dance, say intelligent words on stage, love and be loved and deliver what God gave me? and I’m dressed up besides’”(Black History: Virginia Profiles 1). Hello Dolly! allowed Bailey to be beautiful. Former President Ronald Reagan awarded Bailey was with the Medal of Freedom in 1988. She was also a special delegate to the United Nations under Ford, Reagan and Bush. While in her sixties Bailey went back to college and received her degree in theology from Georgetown University (2). Ethel Waters, “Sweet Mama Stringbean”, started her career in Vaudeville and nightclubs.

In the 1921 Waters performed her first debut album “The New York Glide” and “At the New Jump Steady Bump”. In the mid-twenties she was coined as a pop singer (Red Hot Jazz 1). “On stage she was in successful productions of Africana, Blackbird of the 1930, Rhapsody in Black, and Cabin in the Sky” (Penney 8). She also starred in Pinky in 1949 this was a message film on racism. Waters did not receive recognition for her work until she portrayed Berenice Sadie Brown in The Member of The Wedding. “The Member of the Wedding was more than simply a movie. It was very important repects a motion-picture event.

Foremost, it marked the first time a black actress was used to carry a major-studio white production. Secondly, the movie was another comeback for Ethel Waters. Her autobiography, His Eye Is On The Sparrow? she told all the lurid details of her life the turbulent events in the autobiography convinced patrons that Ethel Waters, who always portrayed long-suffering women, was indeed the characters she played? Now patrons rooted for her to succeed? to triumph”(8). During Waters’s career she was nominated for an Oscar best supporting actress in the film Pinky. She also received the New York Drama Critics Award for best actress.

Ethel Waters’s last performance was in the film The Sound and the Fury in 1959. She continued singing and touring with evangelist Billy Graham until her death in 1977 (Red Hot Jazz 1). Nina May McKinney was “the screen’s first black goddess” (Penney 3). “She was the first black actor in the film to be recognized as a potential mainstream star” (7). McKinney was also the most successful African-American actress in the 1920’s and 1930’s (South Carolina African American History Online 1). McKinney’s career started as a New York City nightclub dancer and later received a role in Lew Leslie’s Blackbird Revue.

In 1929, King Vidor, of MGM Studios, casted McKinney as Chick, a promiscuous young woman in Hallelujah. “In the famous cabaret scene McKinney, as Chick, danced a sensuous dance which has been copied by leading lady Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky to Lola Falana in The Liberation of L. B. Jones” (Penney 7). In Hallelujah, “Chick represented the black woman as an exotic sex object, half woman, half child. She was the black woman out of control of her emotions, split in two by her loyalty and her own vulnerabilities. Implied throughout the battle with self was the tragic mulatto theme?

In this stereotypical concept the white half of her represented the spiritual; the black half-animalistic” (7). Hallelujah was considered the “‘ace of all-black pictures’? The film had a strong plot, but unfortunately the message was? blacks should stay in their place. Though McKinney received much praise for her role as Chick she did not generate leading roles in the American film industry. “She was relegated to assuming routine black characters or to partaking in independently produced, low budget all black movies, as was the pattern for most of the outstanding African-American actors and actresses of the era?

McKinney acted in a few other films in the 1940’s. Her most notable role was in Pinky. McKinney was also a stage actress and performed at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Barred from opportunities and stardom in Hollywood, she soon departed the United States and took her great talents to Europe? in Greece she was known as the Black Garbo? she also starred with the great actor Paul Robeson in the film Sanders of the River” (South Carolina 2). Later in McKinney’s life the great star returned to the States and died in New York City in 1967. Dorothy Dandridge is amongst Hollywood’s beauties in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Though she receives much recognition today as the most beautiful and talented actresses of her time, but at that time she was seen as just another Black actress. Followed in the footsteps of the great Nina Ma McKinney, though they possessed the beauty and the charisma as other female actresses of their time their color was still seen first. Like many actors and actresses of her time Dandridge career went through many highs and lows because of her race. Dandridge’s career began as a singer with her sister Vivian, they were known as the Wonder Children and later the group became a trio by the name the Dandridge Sisters.

She played in many movies in the 1940’s such as: Yes Indeed, Sing for My Supper, Jungle Jig, Easy Street, Cow Cow Boogie, and Paper Dolls to name a few. She was not recognized until her performance as Carmen in Carmen Jones. Her co-stars were Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and Diahann Caroll. She was the first Black to be nominated for an Oscar for best actress (African-American Almanac 248). Dandridge’s role as Carmen lead to more opportunities for African-Americans in films. Dandridge was the first African-American woman to be held in the arms of a white man in the film, Island in the Sun.

She was also the first African-American to have an interracial kiss in The Decks Ran Red (Pioneer Actress 2). Though the film Carmen Jones allowed Dandridge to have a lead role she the character was the stereotypical mulatto woman with a high sex drive and filled with deceit. Penney writes, “The irony that overshadowed Dandridge’s career was that although the image she marketed appeared to be contemporary and daring, at heart it was based on an old classic type, the tragic mulatto. In her important films Dorothy Dandridge portrayed doomed, unfilled women.

Nervous and vulnerable, they always battled with the duality of their personalities. As such, they answered the demands of their times. Dorothy Dandridge’s characters brought to a dispirited nuclear age a razor-sharp sense of desperation that cut through the bleak monotony of the day. Eventually- and here lay the final irony- she may have been forced to live out a screen image that destroyed her” (10). Dorothy Dandridge broke many barriers during her career. She opened the doors for black romance in films. She crossed over the racial lines with interracial relationships on and off screen.

Later in Dandridge’s career she found it hard to get work. She filed for bankruptcy and later committed suicide. Dandridge made it possible for African-American women to be seen as beautiful and not exotic and sexual. In conclusion, many African-Americans actresses were blackballed by the industry. They were not able to achieve the success that they were entitled to because of the era that they were living in. These stars were oppressed because of the color of their skin and not because they did not possess talent.

They were limited to roles that did not allow them to be the damsels or have leading roles. And if they were cast as the lead the film stereotyped the Blacks as shiftless, deceitful, or ignorant. These are just a few of the great African-American women in film that made it easier for African-American women to get into the industry. Though today African-American people are still seen shiftless, drug addicts, gang bangers, killers, whores, and criminals, but now they have more access to the industry because now African- Americans are able to write and direct films that depict them in a better light.

Film today has changed for the past from mammies. Now African-American women are teachers, doctors, lawyers, business tycoons and what have you. Yet, they are still oppressed because they are only able to produce what the movie studios say that they can produce. Today there are films like Soul Food, Love and Basketball, Rosewood, Bamboozled, and many more that have messages and have African-American women in lead roles and not being in the background. These great stars allowed Black girls to see their own kind on a big screen and feel that they are beautiful too.

Work Cited The African-American Almanac, 1997. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 10&16. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. “Ethel Waters. ” Online. 10 March 2005. Available: www. http://www. redhot jazz. com/waters. html. “Honoring Black History Month. ” Pax Stars. Online. 10 March 2005. Available: www. http://www. pax. tv/bios/one-bio. cfm/hattie-mcdaniel. “Nina Mae McKinney. “

South Carolina African American History Online. Online. 11 March 2005. Available: www. http://www.scafam-hist. org/aahc/. “Pearl Bailey. ” Black History: Virginia Profiles. Online. 13 March 2005. Available:www. http://www. gatewayva. com/pages/bhistory/1996/bailey. shtml. Penney, Carol. “Black Actors inamerican Cinema. ” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Online. 12 March 2000. Available: www. http://www. yale. edu/ynhti/cirriculm/units. “Pioneer black actress Dorothy Dandridge has a famous cast of modern-day admirers. ” Online. 12 March 2005. Available: www. http://ohio. com/bj/fun/tv/0299/002827htm.

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