When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a slate of acting nominees for the 2016 Oscars that was all white, it added fuel to the flames of a fierce debate about diversity in American pop culture and sparked an attempt to make the Academy’s membership look more like the audiences for the movies it wants to recognize.
But if mainstream entertainment has looked largely the same for decades, artists of colour have always found ways to do their own vibrant work, with or without the help of major studios and directors. That passion and excellence shows up in projects such asSpike Lee’sChi-Raq and Ryan Coogler’s Creed.
This is no recent phenomenon. I’ve recommended Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood in this column before. And as Black History Month kicks off, Bogle’s look at the early years and the major figures of Hollywood’s pre-Production Code African-American film colony is a great guide to the work artists managed to do in the years when racism was a far more open element of the entertainment industry.
Here are five movies to kick-start your February watchlist. These movies don’t exactly conform to contemporary standards of what progressive depictions of African-Americans might look like. But they’re fascinating documents of how black actors and writers managed to worth within or push against the constraints that so limited their careers.
1.Hallelujah! (1929): Director King Vidor grew up in Texas and had long wanted to make a movie about black communities, starring black actors. He had to forgo his salary to persuade MGM to allow him to make Hallelujah, then shot it on location, and as Bogle recounts, hired black consultants “for technical advice on everything from river baptismal services to revival meetings. Black choral director Eva Jessye — director of the original Dixie Jubilee Singers and the Eva Jessye Choir — supervised key choral sequences.” And the movie launched Nina Mae McKinney’s career.
2.Imitation of Life (1934): Fannie Hurst’s novel of the same name was adapted twice for the screen, the first in 1934. Director John Stahl insisted that an African-American actress had to play Peola Johnson, who breaks her mother Delilah’s (Louise Beavers) heart after choosing to pass for white, compounding the injury that comes when a close white family friend becomes rich off a recipe of Delilah’s invention. Bogle casts Stahl as telling reporters, “This girl is the daughter of a coloured mammy and this point obviously makes it impossible to use an established screen player or, in fact, any girl of Caucasian birth. Such a thing, so to speak, would simply not go down with theatre audiences.”
He was unusual in his attitude, and cross-racial casting still persists today, most recently in the casting of Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in an upcoming movie. And Fredi Washington’s performance as Peola may not have changed the movie industry forever. But Imitation of Life is still a landmark movie and well worth watching, especially in the context of Bogle’s reporting on Washington’s behind-the-scenes experiences on the film.
3.Maid of Salem (1937): Bogle’s portrait of Madame Sul-Te-Wan is fascinating and heartbreaking. She was a longtime D.W. Griffith collaborator, only to be fired after The Birth of a Nation prompted huge (and of course, hugely justified) protests from black moviegoers. “A production manager at the studio explained that a white actress had accused Madame of stealing a book,” Bogle writes. “Finally, he told her — or so Madame was to say — that she was considered responsible for all the criticism within the coloured community against The Birth of a Nation.” Many of Sul-Te-Wan’s parts were small to the point that she wasn’t credited. But in Maid of Salem, a riff on the Salem witch trials, you can watch her as Tituba.
4.The Duke is Tops (1938): Ralph Cooper, an actor so handsome and magnetic that he was nicknamed “Dark Gable,” helped found Million Dollar Productions, a company dedicated to producing movies specifically for the theatres that marketed themselves to black moviegoers. Cooper co-wrote and co-directed, and he gave Lena Horne her first feature film role in the movie.
5.Stormy Weather (1943): One of the laziest canards people use to explain a lack of diversity in their casts or writers’ rooms is that they just can’t find women or people of colour. Stormy Weather, in which Bill Robinson plays a First World War veteran trying to restart his career as a dancer, is one of those movies that both serve as entertainment and offer up a powerful testament to just how much African-American talent Hollywood has always had available to it. Robinson’s the headliner, but he co-stars with Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, among others.(Alyssa Rosenberg)
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