#28DaysOfBlackness: The Evolution Of The Black Actress

While I am sure most of us sat in suspense while watching this year’s Golden Globes, anticipating hearing the name Regina King be called as the winner for Best Supporting Actress.

How many of us saw the actual movie If Beale Street Could Talk? In actuality, it really didn’t matter. All that mattered was a Black woman was being given an accolade in an industry that for over 50 years placed us in a box we had to destroy to be let out of!

“The ‘box’ that we spent so many years being shoved in seemed to become a biodegradable entity in 2002. This is when we watched Halle Berry win the
Academy Award for Best Actress for Monsters Ball  (Although! Angela Bassett should have won that in 1993 for her iconic role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It! We can get into that debauchery on a later note if you want to)!

Even at 22 years old in the early 2000s, I even knew that an accolade of this magnitude for a Black actress was long overdue because Black actresses are extremely overlooked! Yet, there was a sense of complacency with this milestone because for decades we were just happy to have a seat at the table. It wasn’t until Ms. Berry won her prestigious award, gained notoriety, that an abundance of the Black community learned about Hattie McDaniel’s historic Academy Award win in 1939 for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in the classic film Gone With The Wind.

A mammy or maid was the only role a Black actress could book in the early Hollywood. This wasn’t much of a stretch from the reality of everyday life for Black women during that time; while being a true representation of the real-life roles, our ancestors played for slave owners. The silver lining was Black women were now being paid for these roles instead of being beaten. Hattie accepted her award at the 12th annual Academy Awards at the Ambassador Hotel. The producer for that year’s Academy Awards, David O. Selznick, had to petition this venue for Ms. McDaniel to even attend! Due to the Ambassador Hotel’s segregation policy, the actress couldn’t even attend the awards show or be at the hotel. Wearing a blue dress with gardenias gracefully placed in her hair, Ms. McDaniel delivered her acceptance speech:

“It has made me feel very, very humble, and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”

As profound as her words were, they only stood strong within the corridors of that hotel on that evening. Ms. McDaniel’s acting career descended after her win.

Fredricka ‘Fredi’ Washington as a young woman.

Whilst Louise Beavers was not on the Academy’s radar, to this date her role of Delilah in the classic film *Imitation of Life gave the standard servile role for Black actresses more depth. Ms. Beavers gave us a three-dimensional character, which allowed us to connect to a story within a story. Fredi Washington who played the character of Beavers’ daughter, Peola, intensely had to combat for respect as a Black actress during this era as well.

Ms. Washington’s struggles were not of the same magnitude as her peers due to her fair skin and green eyes. Her talent was continually overlooked! The focus would be more on her race and color than her phenomenal acting. Hollywood was persistent in their efforts to persuade Ms. Washington to pass for fully white; promising her in doing so would make her a bigger star than Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo. Although Fredi never made a big mark in the industry like her contemporaries, such as Josephine Baker or Ethel Waters, but she didn’t let that stop her from showcasing her talents in whatever role she landed!

By 1933 Ethel Waters was a name known for becoming the first Black woman to integrate Broadway’s Theatre District, and a singer on a national radio program. She extended her resume by becoming the first Black actress to star in own television show on NBC. The Ethel Waters Variety Show debuted on June 14, 1939, making Ethel the highest paid performer on Broadway.

We are all familiar with the beautiful and talented seductress Lena Horne. Lena was the first Black actress to be cast in Hollywood as a glamorous sex symbol. Thus paving the way for Black actresses to come from under the umbrella of mammy’s and prostitutes. Before Lena, there was Nina Mae McKinney who played the seductress ‘chick’ in the first all-Black musical, Hallelujah. Although her beauty and talent were undeniable, Hollywood just wasn’t ready to take a chance on an attractive Black woman. Nina went on to take her talents to Europe. Leaving the door open just enough for Lena Horne to shimmy through.

Lena’s music career thrived, but her movie career would stay stagnant due to the attitude towards race at the time in Hollywood. When Lena signed with MGM, a lot of her movies were shot so that her scenes could be deleted when they were shown in the South. Theaters in the South would refuse to show films that portrayed blacks as anything but a docile role to Whites. This professional discrimination resulted in further stagnation of her career. We, as the Black community, would continue to see this cycle with many other Black actresses in her era. We even see this downturn in the life of Dorothy Dandridge after her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1955 for Carmen Jones.

Image result for carmen jones (film)
Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, Carmen Jones (1954)

With Juanita Hall being the first black actress to win a Tony award in 1950; Eartha Kitt changing the game for Black actresses in the late 1960s when she took over the role as Catwoman in the Batman series, Black women have been laying seige to Hollywood stereotypes! From there, Black actresses began to take leaps and bounds in Hollywood and Broadway! With Diahann Carroll’s 1968 Golden Globe win there was Gloria Hendry portraying James Bond’s love interest in the film Live and Let Die.  

Now, within the last two decades, we see Brandy Norwood portraying the first Black Cinderella in a Roger and Hammerstein production. Anika Noni Rose who was the voice of Tiana, in The Princess & The Frog:  the first Black animated Disney princess. KeKe Palmer became the youngest TV Talk show host ever with her show Just KeKe on BET. Quvenzhane Wallis is the youngest actress to ever receive an Academy Award nomination.

The evolution of the Black actress goes beyond accolades. We continue to saturate Hollywood with our names in the credits: writer, producer, director, executive producer, and creators.

So, when I see Taraji P. Henson playing the role of Cookie on Empire, Issa Rae starring in her own scripted series Insecure, or watch the trailer for Little and know that 14-year-old Marasi Martin is the youngest executive producer? I will always remember that subservient roles lead to predominance in Hollywood.  And in the immortal words of Drake:

“We started from the bottom now we here.”

*Admin Note: Imitation of Life has two versions. One stars Claudette Colbert (1934) and other stars Lana Turner (1959). The version referenced here is the 1934 version.

[images from thehollywoodreporter.com, Pinterest.com,

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