For example, Chinese actress Anna May Wong (above in Piccadilly)was forced to watch as the heroine O-Lan in The Good Earth was portrayed by Luise Rainier in "yellow-face" rather than by herself, an authentic Chinese woman. (Rainer won the Oscar for her performance). Anna was primarily offered the roles of venomous villainesses; the lead roles of long-suffering heroines went to white actresses in makeup, who could legally perform in love scenes with white actors. Anna was unable to engage in interracial romances on the silver screen, even if the actor performing with her were portraying a Chinese character. Still, Anna May paved the way for future Asian actresses, heightening her place in film through her nuanced and insightful portrayals. In a great show of character, she turned down the role of "Lotus," the evil siren of The Good Earth, after the role of O-Lan, which she craved and rightfully deserved, went to Ms. Rainer. Anna had talent, but she also had pride!
Hatties resting place at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery
Another actor who faced prejudice was James Baskett (above), who starred in the half live-action/half animated classic Song of the South. This film remains the center of controversy and debate, with many claiming that its subject matter is insulting to the African American community. The bulk of this argument has to do with the infamous "tar-baby" scene, as well as the continued myth of the "happy slave." It is more than safe to say that slavery never made anyone happy, a fact even Hollywood confirmed through films depicting the longed for liberation of white slaves and prisoners, including Ben-Hur and Spartacus (how fickle is history). Song of the South remains unavailable for purchase, (unless you are super savvy and know where to look on the down-low, ahem), and this is a true crime, for James delivers a beautiful and heartfelt performance as the lovable storyteller of the shenanigans of Brer Rabbit. His performance of the sentimental and eternal Disney song, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" is reason enough to allow this treasure to be shared. The film boasted a cast of many black performers, including Ms. McDaniel, and was a big step forward in the history of film.
This topic is one that is far too broad and all-encompassing to be discussed in one short article, and there are countless artists worthy of our respect and admiration for their pioneering efforts, from Dorothy Dandridge to Sidney Poitier; from James Wong Howe to Honorable Wu. I introduce the subject to mention Mae West's position in this corner of history. In Mae's heart, there was no room for prejudice or racism. To her, if you were talented, you were talented; it didn't matter if you were black, white, red, or purple. This is an attitude she learned from her father, boxer Battlin' Jack West, who befriended many black boxers whom he often invited over for dinner. Mae's equally giving nature also drew her to the underdog, and just as she would make great strides toward the acceptance of the homosexual population, so too would she do with the African American population.
Working on the stage in New York before she made it to Hollywood, Mae was always raising eyebrows (and temperatures) with her discussion and portrayal of sex, prostitution, drugs, and murder. Her sense of humor was able to dilute the harsher topics of the day before she fed it to her audiences, who were both shocked and appreciative that such subject matter was finally being discussed in the open. One of the many progressive steps that Mae took was to introduce a dance that was popular in the black community to her audiences-- the "Shimmy Shawobble." She did so in the play Sometime, in which she referred to the risque and wild dance as "the Shimmy." It seems innocent now, but certain sects of society were absolutely shocked! The other half, of course, ate it up and asked for more. It was different, liberating, and exciting to the general, repressed theater-goer, and theater is, after all, all about living vicariously. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the happy-go-lucky vision of joyous bodies in motion was certainly a welcome reprieve to frightened and paranoid audiences.