Tuesday, February 2, 2010

African American History Month

KC over at Classic Movies reminds me that February is African American History Month. As I've written before, images of African Americans in movies were few and far between during the first half of the 20th century, usually limited to small supporting roles as domestics, Pullman porters or racist stereotypes so broadly drawn, they shock the conscience of a modern-day viewer.

And while there's definitely something to Hattie McDaniel's assertion that she'd "rather play a maid than be one," every now and then a performer appeared on screen in a role just tasty enough to make you hunger for what might have been.

Here are a half dozen who made a splash during the early sound era:

Nina Mae McKinney

Ethel Waters

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

Louise Beavers

Paul Robeson

Hattie McDaniel

8 comments:

mister muleboy said...

I'm pretty sure that, had he been white [or the world different], Robeson would have been one of thosehistoric figures I despise.

His talents and capacity seemed so boundless that, had his skin not been coloured differently from the northern-european settlers here, he would have "ruled the world." Not probably as a power-merchant, but as a thinker, scholar, performer, atlete, lover, and raconteur. He would have been even more celebrated, and would have remained larger-than-life forever. And those kind of guys always piss me off -- something about underdogs and unexpected pleasures and whittling-down-to-size in my fucked up DNA. . . .

For the sake of everyone, I'm sorry that he wasn't allowed to be one of those guys. To be beloved by even more millions o' people and rooted against by one shitty little Mule would'a been a helluva lot better than the raw deal he got from his skin colour.

And this is a dude who transcended his skin colour, and achieved amazing things.


Maybe it worked out; I would'a been preoccupied by the dude.

As things stand, I've got enough trouble with that Will Rogers fucker. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Robeson was pretty much a philosopher-king anyway. In an unbiased world, he would have been an Oscar-winning actor or Secretary of State ... or both.

I think we sometimes forget just how bad things were back in the day. Not only could blacks be barred from owning property, voting, going to school or taking advantage of public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants, Congress couldn't even muster the votes to pass an anti-lynching law. Think about that for a while. That Robeson still managed to leave an indelible mark despite operating in that sort of environment is a testament to his outsized talent.

KC said...

Paul Robeson scared a lot of people simply because he's as close to Superman as we'll ever get! I'm sure people were grateful to point to his politics as a reason to give him hell, but I believe that his obvious superiority over pretty much everyone made his oppressors much more uncomfortable. Even a white man with the gifts he had would be in trouble.

thingy said...

Even as a kid, I was always disturbed how the driver in the Topper movies was portrayed.

Eddie Rochester played the typical stereotypical servant role.

I read that when Jack Benny went on tour during WW2, Rochester stayed behind due to the still separation between black and white, and it was supposedly a wake up call for Benny.

It was a strange time I'm sure, for black actors to get paid to act in a subservient manner.

Mythical Monkey said...

Along those lines, thingy, at the Oscar ceremony where Hattie McDaniel won supporting actress for Gone With The Wind, she and her date had to sit at a separate table by themselves, away from all the other stars up for awards. And neither she nor Butterfly McQueen were allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta. And I'm not even sure anyone realized at the time how bizarre and wrong that was. Well, Hattie McDaniel probably, but she wasn't in a position to do anything about it -- not if she wanted to keep working. I'm sure that was a choice that ate away at her and everybody else for a long time ...

Zoe said...

probably the most degrading role in film i have seen of a an african american was Butterfly Mcqueen playing the maid Lottie in Mildred Pierce. similar too her role in Gone with the wind in playing the clumsy stupid maid. actors of color would of just had to take all they could get.

thats pretty awesome that Hattie won an oscar i didn't know that.

Mythical Monkey said...

thats pretty awesome that Hattie won an oscar

Deserved it, too. If I live long enough, I'll write one of those five thousand word essays about her ...

Lupner said...

Although Hattie McD. had many finer moments in that role, "just like a spider" remains one of my favorite movie lines (and deliveries) ever . . .