By Peggy S. Butler Hollywood,that magical kingdom of mythical folklore, where dreams are made, has beencredited with creating an environment of racism and discontentment. Even thename itself conjures up images of an industry where talent creates legends, and physical attractiveness garner auditions.Since its inception, the film industry has not beenreceptive to Black performers, especially the early pioneers.
In the late 1920s as silent films faded into oblivion andtalkies became the new fad; there were only two roles available to Blacks- servants and buffoons.While many performers refused to play such demeaning characters, four pioneers—BillRobinson, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit made careers outof playing clowns and domestics. As a result, throughout their careers theywere criticized by the Black community. However,they are credited with paving the way for today’s superstars. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949 Starring opposite child star Shirley Temple, BillRobinson tap-danced his way into the hearts of America in “The Little Colonel”and “The Little Rebel”.
A veteran hoofer, Blacks loved Robinson’s soft-shoeroutine, but disapproved of his film roles. They detested how in The LittleColonel he was cast as Temple’s play mate.”Here was this dignified man, who was 57 at thetime, and he’s dancing up and down the stair case with this curly haired moppetin a butler’s uniform, with this wide grin on his face,” says film criticDonovan E. Majors. “Even moredemoralizing is when the script calls for Robinson to address 6-year-old Temple as “Miss Sherman.” In the film, Temple’s character’s name is Lloyd Sherman.
In an age of virulent racism, Majors said Blacks shouldhave been more sympathetic. “They failed to understand that these were the onlyroles available to Black actors”. He went on to explain that in the ’30s, Blackfilmmakers were few and far, so actors had two choices. They could take thoseroles and make money, or abandon their careers altogether.Although his roles were a source of embarrassmentfor Blacks, Bill Robinson’s legend lives on via films and hisinnovative.dancing. Louise Beavers (1902-1962) Born in Cincinnati, Louise Beavers rose toprominence playing the overweight-mammy, eager to tackle the problems of theworld.
During her career, she starred opposite Hollywood’s biggest names,including Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. Her most famous role was that of Aunt Deliah in the1934 tear jerker Imitation of Life. In the film, Beavers plays ahousekeeper who sells her pancake recipe to her White employer, whosubsequently becomes rich. Out of generosity, the woman offers the housekeepera 20 percent interest in the company. But the dutiful maid refuses the offer.Deliah is so devoted, she insists that her employer keep every cent of theprofits. Today, the film would be boycotted by African-Americans, but in 1934 itwas a box-office triumph. White audiences loved the film, but Blacks foundDeliah ‘s generosity puzzling.
After Imitation of Life, Beavers went on to star inother films such as ” House,” “New Orleans”, “Holiday Inn” and “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Recognizedtoday as an accomplished actress, however Beavers remains a sore spot amongAfrican-American filmgoers. Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952) McDaniel, more than any other actress, personified Hollywood’s definition of thesubservient female servant. From a physical standpoint, she was the perfectrepresentative for White studio executives, who found her dark skin and amplebody, perfect for playing the wisecracking servant who dispenses advice at thedrop of a hat. In dozens of films, McDaniel cavorted with superstars, butit was “Gone with the Wind,” that made her a household name. As “Mammy,”McDaniel more than held her own with the film’s stars Clark Gable and VivianLeigh.
Audiences were so enamored with McDaniel’s portrayal; the Motion PictureAcademy of Arts and Science awarded her with a nomination for best actress in asupporting role. The nomination was historic. It was the firstdesignation for a Black performer. In 1940, McDaniel became the firstAfrican-American to win an Academy Award.
Despite her win, Blacks were outraged that the Academy bestowed itsfirst Oscar to a performer whose role they considered demeaning. Defending herself against Blacks who criticized herfor the roles she played, McDaniel told her detractors, “I would rather play amaid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.”A terrific character actress, she is viewed by filmhistorians as a pioneer. Yet some Blacks still refuse to acknowledge her work.When 500 African-Americans were asked in a 2013 poll to name the actresses they consideredgreat stars, McDaniel’s name was not mentioned, an observation many say ismisleading.In his book “Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America’s Black Female Stars,” author Donald Bogle writesthere was another side of McDaniel few were familiar with. “She set her ownstandards and sailed through many films with an astonishing sense of self andpersonal dignity.
” Stepin Fetchit (1902-1985) From the late 1920s, until his death in 1985, StepinFetchit was the man Blacks loved to hate. Their disdain for the veteran actor, stemmed from the fact thathe like Beavers, Robinson and McDaniel were cast in roles people of colordeemed “embarrassing.” Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe AndrewPerry in Key West, Florida. It was during the 1930s that Fetchit first playedthe “bungling coon,” whose gestures were limited to eye rolling and a dialoguecomprised of gibberishA mild-mannered man, Fetchit told his critics, thecharacters he played were not representative of the real Stepin Fetchit. And hewas right. Away from the camera, Fetchit despised his roles, and was generally upsetabout Hollywood’s portrayal of Black performers. He died at 83,without garnering the respect of Blacks who never stopped criticizing his on-screen antics.
To Bill, Louise, Hattie and Stepin, we say thankyou, for having the courage to inundateHollywood, with that brilliant ray of color, that was missing, and isstill missing, even in the 21st century!