Great Moments in Black Acting

Where did the current blaze of extraordinary African-American talent on the big screen come from? A long, troubling history of greatness.


This is a moment in time when an American National Theatre, if such a thing existed, could easily mount a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters with Alfre Woodard, Regina Taylor and Angela Bassett, or O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh with Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, Laurence Fishburne and Delroy Lindo. In other words, we have never had such a wealth of extraordinary black actors. And so, bearing in mind that categorizing black acting is, in a way, not a whole lot different from discussing left-handed acting, let us attempt to examine the history that has now come to flower. Because the history of black screen acting cannot help but reflect the progress of an embattled race.

There are immense achievements in black acting in America. But the achievements are troubling, because they have unfolded within a tyranny no law can shift. America has required acting from blacks. When it told them not just to sit in the back of the bus, but to do so without outrage, and then when it slowly came around to say, Why sure, you can sit where you like, and expected a smile of gratitude, it demanded a kind of performance that amounts to straight-faced self-denial. White people have steadily imposed acting on blacks--in obedience, acceptance, and resignation to playing the game by white rules. It may be that one of the most profound fissures in black identity comes from not quite know-ing when they are being real, being themselves, and from wondering whether they can ever escape the "play" being written for them.

This has to be said before any appreciation of black acting on film can be attempted. For most whites, acting has always been an art, a call-ing, a chosen job, an exploration of self. For blacks it has been a necessary distortion, often unconscious and usually debilitating. It has also been a matter of life and death.

We are exploring the history of a medium that came of age with D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, a "classic" that can only be shown in schools and universities now with a more delicate and disavowing preamble than one would need with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Just as The Birth of a Nation gathered together so many tricks and breakthroughs in visual storytelling, so it made a travesty of American history, showing the Klan as a band of noble stalwarts and having white actors put on blackface to depict the slothful, shifty, lascivious Negro. That was 1915, of course, and there has been progress. There is, for example, the fact of Morgan Freeman's role in Seven, where he just happens to embody some hope for decency in a sewer world with-out anyone ever having to mention that he is black as opposed to merely alive, bruised, tired and American.

It was progress, too, of a kind, back in 1949, when 20th Century Fox made Pinky. Elia Kazan's film is very bizarre, very pretentious and very dishonest, but it was the product of progressive intentions. Fox had just won the Best Picture Oscar with Gentleman's Agreement, a rather prim expose of anti-Semitism in America, and was emboldened. So "race" was next: every outrage has its day. Darryl Zanuck, the studio boss, had a story about a light-skinned black woman who was often able to pass for white. John Ford was hired to direct, but he hated the project, and he was intimidated by the great black singer and actress Ethel Waters (playing the girl's grandmother), who didn't allow him to treat her like dirt, the way he was accustomed to dealing with actors. Elia Kazan, a man of the Left and director of Gentleman's Agreement, took over and quickly came to hate the project as well, though his feelings were directed at Jeanne Crain, a former Miss Long Beach cast as the black girl who could pass for white. Not only was she as white as toilet paper, she was passive and bland.

Near the end of the shoot, Kazan and Ethel Waters got drunk together at a party. As he relates the incident in his autobiography, they were becoming bosom buddies until the lady took one drink too many, at which point Kazan elected to ask a question that had been nagging at him and which voiced his own needy guilt.

"You don't really like any white people, do you, Ethel?"

"No, I don't."

"Not even me?"

"Not even you. I don't like any fucking white man. I don't trust any of you."

"The next morning, Ms. Waters was her old self again--amiable, polite and professional. She was 52 at the time, and practiced in acting in and out of character for white directors.

Waters had been raised in extreme poverty, had married at 13, and had been a house servant for years before she got into vaudeville, which led to Broadway success. While deservedly nominated for Supporting Actress for her role in Pinky, Waters was even better a few years later in the film version of Carson McCullers's play The Member of the Wedding, playing the role of Berenice, the earth mother, which she'd created on Broadway. Waters gave a performance that has to rank among the great moments of black acting, Julie Harris, also spectacular in the film, was the one to gel an Oscar nomination. The film flopped at the box office.

Waters had once worked with a slinky, pale-skinned, young temptress named Lena Horne back in the 1943 movie Cabin in the Sky, and had been very tough on the flashy kid, a beauty, a new singer and a black who was nearly light enough to persuade Louis B. Mayer to give her starring parts (she would have made a great Pinky). But Home never got the opportunities this Waters got; she was too threatening--that is, too sophisticated, sexy and modem. She was confined to musicals, and even then some of her best numbers were dropped from the finished films. When Metro remade Show Boat in 1951, the role of the half-caste Julie went not to Home, but to the "sultry"-looking Ava Gardner, whose singing had to be dubbed. Ethel Waters was given more acting space precisely because she was older, homely, over-weight and more easily placed as the classic fount of untutored wisdom and uncritical kindness.

That is one of the two most prevalent stereotypes for regarding black people in American movies, the other one being the foolish comedy of the inept black man (embodied above all in Stepin Fetchit, the working name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, the first black actor to receive featured billing--largely because he played hilarious idiots). The actress who, besides Waters, rose above the black earth mother stereotype was Hattie McDaniel, a preacher's daughter from Kansas who became well-known on radio in the "Amos 'n' Andy" show and was cast regularly as a maid and mammy in '30s films, right up to her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Mammy stands by Scarlett to the end: she knows how volatile, selfish and bitchy her white "child" can be, but she loves her like a mother. And she is far more the loyal follower of the O'Hara family than a black slave appreciative of the freedom that has descended on her after the Civil War.

Gone With the Wind's producer, David O. Selznick, reckoned he was doing pioneering work in the employment of blacks. He was horrified when word came out of Atlanta that the sentiment there was not to invite Hattie McDaniel to the world premiere, or even to include her picture in the lavish souvenir program. Yet Selznick acceded to both requests. Moreover, while he took a large table at the Oscars ceremony in 1940, McDaniel and a companion were seated off in a corner at a small table for two. It was from that table that Hattie McDaniel made the long walk to receive her Oscar--the first ever won by a black performer. She thanked the Academy and hoped that she would "always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry."

In hindsight, the characterization of Mammy--and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen)--in Gone With the Wind seems very uncomfortable, and the film becomes harder to swallow year by year, just as The Birth of a Nation can now scarcely be served. But Mammy is ultimately a character, as opposed to a mere stereotype, thanks largely to McDaniels's skill in enduring all the troubles and emotions of plain experience, while Scarlett lives loftily in her own dreams. Moreover, both Mammy and Prissy are central to the film. There had been so little context for black players in mainstream films up till then. In the entire era of the '30s, it's difficult to recall black presences beyond those of Nina Mae McKinney in King Vidor's glorious, aberrational all-black movie Hallelujah, Louise Beavers as the maid in Imitation of Life, and Shirley Temple's dance partner on screen (and fawning chum in life), Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. And these skilled players meant less to the 1930s than Al Jolson's brief 1927 sensation in blackface.

It's in light of Gone With the Wind that we can see how much had altered by the time of Pinky. Yes, it's a wretched film, but at least a different kind of attempt was being made to portray black experience. And in the late '40s and '50s there were other movies, far better than Pinky, that presented blacks in a way they had not been seen before, reflecting the fact that during World War II many whites, effectively for the first time, met and talked to blacks. And died beside them.

In the years of war itself, and in the immediate aftermath, combat films did not convey the gradual integration of the armed services. It was daring enough, first, to put Hispanics in those films. And so we see no blacks in Bataan (1943), Air Force (1943), Pride of the Marines (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945) or Battleground (1949). All credit then to 1949's Home of the Brave, directed by Mark Robson. The film featured a very good James Edwards as a black G.I. struggling for acceptance in an otherwise white unit. The irony is that the Arthur Laurents play from which the film was adapted had actually been about a Jew! The producer, Stanley Kramer, called for a black because the Jewish "problem" had been done already (and settled?) in Gentleman's Agreement. So, however inadvertently, Home of the Brave had a real impact. Edwards, often omitted from lists of notable black actors, would go on to give excellent supporting performances in The Steel Helmet, Kubrick's The Kilting and Men in War.

There were other signs of black screen life at this time. Canada Lee, who had played the lead in Orson Welles's 1941 stage production of Native Son, delivered a superb performance as the boxer-turned-trainer in Body and Soul, just before the blacklist closed in on him. The Puerto Rican-born Juano Hernandez was outstanding as the man who may be lynched in Intruder in the Dust. And then there was Sidney Poitier, who deserves to be credited as the most influential black actor in Hollywood's history.

Poitier was an American, born in Miami, but he had been raised in the British Bahamas. He had a cultured voice to go with the exceptional looks, and to that degree, he was less threatening than many urban American blacks. He was polite, wholesome and "pretty." Having done work on the stage, he won a key role in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film No Way Out, which is hardly known today but vital in this history. Poitier plays a young doctor who comes into conflict with a racist hoodlum played by Richard Widmark. It is a violent movie, full of racist talk, and it involves a provoked race riot. Poitier is the inescapable hero, the first black actor to control a film with unquestioned camera authority. He is not just a valiant figurehead, but a man in real dramatic conflict. Nearly 50 years old, No Way Out is a little dated, but a modern audience can still feel its importance and courage.

Some people feel that Poitier did his finest work in those early years before he was established as an icon or poster man. He is excellent again as a black soldier among whites in Red Ball Express; as one of the gang in Blackboard Jungle (nearly 30, playing a high school kid); and outstanding as a friend to John Cassavetes in Martin Ritt's Edge of the City, a movie that quietly established a human situation in which a black knew far more than a white. The Defiant Ones, the 1958 film in which Poitier and Tony Curtis escape from a chain gang manacled together, was a turning point. Despite the snarly ferocity of Curtis and the immaculate dignity of Poitier, The Defiant Ones can't escape the contrivance of its own symbolism or the hollowness of its preachiness. It was a film "to make people think," which meant that it was given to clichéd ideas as opposed to the real flow of ideas that comes naturally with a good, original story. But it was a hit, and received a Best Picture nomination as well as Best Actor nominations for both Curtis and Poitier.

Poitier was thus a star when Otto Preminger cast him in Porgy and Bess opposite the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge, who, after 15 years in small parts without recognition, had four years earlier become the first black actor nominated in a lead role for Otto Preminger's remarkable Carmen Jones, the screen version of Oscar Hammerstein II's Broadway adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen. It's a terrific film, in which Dandridge and her costar, Harry Belafonte, exuded the black sexiness that Hollywood had till then effectively banned from the screen because it threatened white audiences. Porgy and Bess felt as fabricated as Carmen Jones was earthy. Poitier went on to win his 1963 Oscar for Lilies of the Field, after which came the "important" self righteousness of A Patch of Blue, The Slender Thread, To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But nothing can distract from Poitier's originality in the 1950s, or his utterly natural sincerity. In their tender, delayed minds, many white people came to think better or more fully about blacks because of Sidney Poitier. It was up to Poitier to deal in private with any dismay he may have felt over the fact that he was now a political statement instead of an actor.

It gets to the heart of white America's anxiety at the dawn of change in the '50s to point out that there was a film that exceeded any of Poitier's in impact. This film had no blacks in it. Though director John Ford had used and rather abused Stepin Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953), and though he was in some ways an automatic, unthinking racist, yet he had guilty feelings, too. His 1956 film The Searchers, a Western in which John Wayne spends years pursuing a niece who's been kidnapped by the Comanches and made wife of the chief, offered a harsh but telling view of the way racism is seeded in the dark under-growth of sexual threat. Ford later made Sergeant Rutledge (1960), in which Woody Strode, a football star and professional wrestler-turned-actor, gives an eloquent, restrained performance as a man wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a white girl, but The Searchers is the more remarkable film for its depiction of white dread of interracial sexuality.

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