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Black Hollywood’s Historical Complexity

As I reviewed the 2009 Oscar nominations, I noticed the substantial number of Black nominees. Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lee Daniels and Morgan Freeman were nominated for Best  Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Actor, respectively. Each of them were nominated for diverse roles ranging from an overweight physically, sexually and emotionally abused ghetto girl; a callous, alcoholic, psychologically abusive mother; a portrayal of Nelson Mandela: to a director who captured and illustrated the darkest, most violent and sordid pathologies of human nature.


Truth be told, from the early years of Hollywood when films such as The Railroad Porter (1912) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) made their way onto American screens and into American movie houses, films depicting African-Americans have often been the subject of controversy. Upon its release, Birth of A Nation, a retrograde film of the worst order, directed by D.W.Griffith, did more to cripple an already deplorable environment in regards to American race relations than any film of its era. The movie could not have come along at a worst time in history. Colonialism swept through the African continent. Poverty and disease saturated the Caribbean. Lynching, Jim Crow, Black codes and other restrictive measures deprived millions of Black Americans their basic human rights and dignity as American citizens.


As a result of this retrograde film, brutal lynching of Black men increased. The Ku Klux Klan increased its membership. Southern politicians ratified more racist legislation designed to further solidify White supremacy. To paraphrase the line of an Elton John song “it was a sad, sad situation.”


As the century progressed, other depictions of Black Americans graced the silver screen. By the early- to mid-1920s, Black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux who for more than two decades produced a number of films such as Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925) that chronicled the complexity of layers that defined the lives of Black Americans. Lynchings, criminality, religion and passing were among the more common themes of Micheaux’s work. Like others before him, he faced a degree of critical response to his work from critics who argued that he perpetuated the same stereotypes that many of his contemporaries did.


The 1930s became the decade where Black in servant roles became commonplace. From Hattie McDaniel to the shuffling, jiving and cooning antics of Stepin Fetchit in films like Carolina (1934) and Helldorado (1935) made millions for Hollywood. In the case of Fetchit, his films became the target of harsh criticism form the NAACP and other organizations. Over time, Fetchit himself began to become weary of performing such mindless characters and his work eventually declined. Paul Robeson was a former college All-American athlete and later Black actor who became prominent during the decade. One notable fact was that McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Academy Award. She captured the Best Supporting Actress trophy for Gone With The Wind (1939).


 By the 1940s, Blacks who were more complex were introduced to America. The decade was especially notable for its focus on Black women who were not always maids, asexual or seemed to have no lives of their own. Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Hazel Scott became known during this time.  The image of the biracial Black women often referred to as the “tragic mulatto” became a common staple hood in Black-themed films. Films like Pinky (1949) and Lost Boundaries (1949) addressed the issues of conflicted Blacks who longed to and in some cases, decided to pass for White. Good, sensitive postwar Blacks like James Edwards in Home of The Brave (1949) were well received by audiences as well.                    


The 1950s, introduced us to sexy, sophisticated Black stars who became Hollywood superstars. Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge became favorites among all Americans. Dandridge became the first Black women nominated for Best Actress for her role in Carmen Jones (1954). Sidney Poitier became Hollywood’s first Black superstar for a number of successful movies among them, Blackboard Jungle, (1955) Edge of The City (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958) and others. Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Defiant Ones.


Along came the 1960s when the civil rights movement was in full swing and Hollywood was eager to give the impression that it had its pulse on the direction that the nation was going. Poitier continued his dominance in films. He became the first Black person to win Best Actor for his role in Lillies of the Field (1963). In 1967, he starred in three smash hits Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In The Heat of the Night and To Sir With Love. By 1968, he was the No. 1 box office star in America. A number of racially conscious films such One Potato, Two Potato (1964), Nothing But A Man (1963) Portrait of Jason (1967) and Black Like Me (1964) were produced during the decade.


The 1970s, introduced us to the era of Blaxploitation. Richard Roundtree, Melvin Van Peebles, Ron O’Neal, Tamara Dobson and Pam Grier were among the actors who represented this genre. Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Cleopatra Jones, Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Foxy Brown (1974) made millions at the box office and helped revitalize the movie industry which at that time was facing financial difficulties.


A number of serious films were made during the decade including Lady Sings The Blues (1972), Sounder (1972), Claudine (1974) and  Norman, Is That You? (1976). By the mid-1970s, with the success of more mainstream films such as The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975), these films faced a gradual and eventual demise as Hollywood found a way to bring middle America (read White ) America back to movie houses. The Wiz (1978) the Black version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), was a cross between the serious and comedic. Richard Pryor became a household name during this decade.


Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, and Spike Lee were among a few Black stars who made their mark in Hollywood during the 1980s. Murphy, a former Saturday Night Live cast member, became a major success with several films — 48 Hrs (1982), Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Coming To America (1988) and others. Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery all received Oscar nominations for their performances in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985).


Black actors Louis Gossett Jr, Freeman, Denzel Washington, Dexter Gordon and Adolph Caesar received nominations for their roles in an Officer and a Gentlemen (1982), Street Smart (1987), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Cry Freedom (1987), Glory (1989), Round Midnight (1986) and A Soldier’s Story (1984). Gossett Jr. and Washington received Best Supporting Actor Oscars for their performances in an Officer and a Gentlemen and Glory. Spike Lee became a mainstay in with his low-budget successful films She’s Gotta Have It, (1986), School Daze (1988) and Do The Right Thing (1989).


The 1990s introduced us to a number of Black filmmakers — Julie Dash, the Hudlin Brothers, Charles Burnett, Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton and Bill Duke to name a few. Daughters of The Dust (1992), The Five Heartbeats (1991), New Jack City (1991), Boyz N’ the Hood (1991), To Sleep With Anger (1990) made their way to the big screen. John Singleton’s Boyz N’ The Hood earned him an Academy Award nomination, the first Black American nominated for Best Director. Lee continued his success with a slew of films Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and Girl 6 (1996) among others. Angela Bassett, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Lawrence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Lawrence, Forrest Whittaker, and Denzel Washington were among  the Black stars who became prominent during this decade.


As we have concluded the first decade of the 21st century, we have seen a number of Black actors and directors continue to perform with varying degrees of success. Berry (2001), Washington (2001), Jamie Foxx (2004), Forest Whitaker (2006) won Oscars as for lead acting roles. Other stars such as Don Cheadle, Derek Luke, Jeffrey Wright, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and other Black performers grace screens in admirable fashion. Tyler Perry has become a one-man industry (actor, director, producer, and writer) for his chit’lin circuit films that appeal to a significant segment of the Black audience. Smith is the most bankable Hollywood star of any race. It remains to be seen what the future holds for Black Hollywood, but one thing is for certain, it has already seen dramatic transformations for Black performers repeatedly for almost 100 years.


Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).      

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