Quick challenge: name five studio-era African American stars. The first name served is Sidney Poitier, next Hattie McDaniel, then Lena Horne... Maybe one is able to recall the comic efforts of the heavily stereotyped Stepin Fetchit... Kind of gets hard to tack that last digit, doesn't it? While no one can argue the continuing spell that classic Hollywood casts over us-- the beauty, the allure, the glamour-- when one is being realistic, there are many flaws in Tinsel Town's handsome face. Hence, cinematic racism: a painful subject and a continuing saga of human failure and regeneration for every generation. The great thing about being a student of film is having this tangible ability to witness human beings in action. Since the advent of this medium, we have been able to literally watch history unfold and effect change before our very eyes, though we are rarely aware of this phenomenon as it happens. The social motivations that compel us to tell certain stories-- and audience reactions to these documentations-- in turn, become artifacts of our ever malleable culture.
Evaluating movies of the past, wherein racial slurs or sexist statements make a modern audience wince, can often result in the ostracizing of certain films-- we are unwilling to admit past blunders, so we bury our past. But this too is a failure on our part. In not permitting certain films-- which fail to live up to our current politically correct standards-- to be seen, we miss out on the talents that paved the way toward a more understanding, comprehensive society. For example, there are those that refuse to list Gone with the Wind's merits due to the perpetuation of the "happy slave" myth, as portrayed through the characters of "Mammy," "Pork," and "Prissy." True enough. But what of the stellar performances? The epic love story? The scope of filmmaking as yet never before reached? And what of the black actors McDaniel, Polk, and McQueen who you are robbing of their moment? One small step for man, one giant step for mankind. Through cinema, you embarrassingly watch man commit his prejudices and slowly unlearn them. One shouldn't be afraid to watch us making these steps, nor rob himself of the intrigue of literally watching it happen. And so we move from Cabin in the Sky, to Gone with the Wind, to Malcolm X, etc. And this is just dealing with one branch of our multiple minorities.
With that overly lengthy introduction being said, I can now press on to the matter at hand, which is how the racial issue has been investigated in our cinematic storylines in one particular fashion. While the burden of racial tension almost consistently fell on Mr. Poitier's shoulders, producing in his career one of the most profound and effective bodies of work in perhaps all film history, the female element of the African American race was very rarely given voice. When it was, it was normally stereotyped through the role of the sassy servant or house maid. But, there too was a strange mutation in which a black woman was given opportunity to reveal the prejudices under which she suffered through a character with true depth and feeling, but in this case, of course, she had to be half white. The final clincher, she had to be played by a Caucasian actress. (Harrumph). While this shoddy choice at casting was taken as a slap in the face to the many black actresses dying for a chance to give credit to their race and prove themselves as genuine talents, the choice was just as much about business as it was an unhealthy dose of racism. Due to the production code, there could be no interracial romance or miscegenation on camera, which meant that a black actress could not indulge in a romance with a white actor (this is the same stipulation that caused Anna May Wong's career to suffer). This, in addition to the fact that famous, white actors were considered the real stars and money earners, led to forward thinking plots with backward thinking production. Nonetheless, these films are worth a glance, as they are yet one more step forward from our segregated past. I have three films (and multiple versions) to discuss today: Show Boat, Imitation of Life, and Pinky.
Fast forward to a few years later, and we find Julie alone without her man. Steve, her one true love, has left her, most probably due to the societal pressures of being married to a "negro girl," but also there are hints at infidelity and the other hard-knock financial pressures that any entertainer must endure. Julie mourns him, singing her heartbreaking "Bill" to the drunken crowds at The Trocadero, a gigantic step down from the homey and classy show boat. Julie too, it is discovered, is a drunk who has taken to the bottle to cope with her heartbreak. Surprisingly, Magnolia is brought back into her life and, just like Julie, she has fallen on hard times with her husband, Gaylord, whose gambling has cost them their home and eventually each other. He too has walked out on his wife, and so the two spurned women are reunited in song, for Julie overhears Magnolia auditioning for a spot at the club. Her audition piece is, of course, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Just as she had several years prior, Julie performs her act as guardian angel, watching out for her younger soul sister, and ensuring that she will not have to suffer the same pains as herself. She leaves her job at The Trocadero, seeing to it that Magnolia takes her place. Here we encounter the first example of the chosen sacrifice of the lower race. In all areas, Julie and Magnolia are fairly interchangeable. Though Magnolia was fortunate enough to be born to more prosperous and white parents, they are both destitute, abandoned, and lost. The one defining difference is Julie's mixed race. For this, she is irredeemable and she knows it. Julie committed the mortal sin of thinking she could climb above societies' restraints and enjoy the high life-- aka the white life-- but fate surely and swiftly reminded her of her place in the caste system. Though the Civil War has ended, her breeding still makes her a slave. She knows her place, and she accepts it. Her giving heart, which gave all to Steve, now continues to give to her friend who, of course, goes on to become a great star.
This same goodness eventually works to reunite Magnolia with the wayfaring Gaylord, whom a drunken Julie encounters some time later. Ava Gardner does some of her best work in this scene in the 1951 version when she all but shames and begs Gaylord to give up his scandalous, cowardly ways and return to Magnolia. If she can bring one man back to the woman who loves him, it will have made her martyrdom worth it. All of the suffering she has endured as an outcast will be won back if she can prove that true love does exist, and her karmic injustice will be paid in full-- as the other, she delivers the true rights of happiness to the true white race that deserves it. Forgiven for sullying the waters of purity, this last sacrificial act may give her peace. Gaylord does return to Magnolia, and the Hawkes family floats on their boat to better things on the ever-flowing river of life. Julie, we are left to assume, will be kept warm for the remainder of her days with the knowledge that she has done some good. As is her fate, she should expect nothing more, right?
Julie is not the only person of "color" in the story, with various other helping hands along the way being portrayed by Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson ('36), and William Warfield ('51), the latter two of whom perform with great pathos and gut-wrenching gusto the famous "Old Man River." As is usual, these authentically black characters are treated with a sort of condescending affection that is elevated only by the performances of the actors. They are kind-hearted but most importantly unambitious. They know their place and do not seek to escape it. It is Julie's ferocious beatings against history's iron cage that eventually victimize her. This is why she is not carried to heaven on 'Old Man River' with the other, allegedly smarter members of her race. While these themes today irk the conscience, the films are at least successful in painting sympathy for the African American population, though they are still forced to suffer. The fact that a white woman was chosen to play the mixed Julie is somewhat forgivable in the restraints of the time, as an onscreen romance between a black Lena Horne-- one original choice for the role in 1951-- and a white actor was a definite no-no and far too shocking for an America still in the midst of racial segregation. Lena in fact was asked to coach Ava Gardner in her singing for the role, which was an additional slap in the face to both women. In the end, Ava's singing would not be used but was dubbed by Annette Warren. The only happy ending there is that Lena and Ava were actually good friends. Ironically, Lena had performed the song "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the biopic of Jerome Kern's life, Till the Clouds Roll By, in 1946. The time had not yet come for a black woman to have a romantic leading role, even a supporting, romantic leading role. Women of color were still resigned to character roles and bit parts. Yet, the film industry was able to inch the door open ever so much wider, and through the superb performances of its actors, audiences at least subliminally could begin to empathize with a dark race-- though sadly by giving them a white face.
Both films are essentially the same in plot, but where the '34 version is more poetic and sentimental the latter version is overly melodramatic but bold. In both, the white matriarch encounters the black matriarch by accident, and as they are both mothers struggling along, Bea/Lora gives Delilah/Annie a job as, basically, her housekeeper. The most obvious difference in the films occurs through the Bea/Lora character, who in '34 is a widow who essentially bogarts Delilah's pancake recipe to start a restaurant and later a thriving pancake mix enterprise. Of course, as she is a tolerant, open-minded individual, she considers Delilah an equal partner, but when she offers Delilah her financial freedom, the latter doesn't want it: "Please don't send me away..." It is the contemporary equivalent of the "happy slave"-- after being freed from imprisonment, the convict is far too unaccustomed to life on the outside, and thus opts to remain incarcerated. The two women get along well, are "friends," though from time to time it is obvious that Bea enjoys mocking Delilah's lesser intelligence. Though this is seemingly the epitome of a romanticized, segregated, separate-but-equal existence, the distinction between the two women in levels of "class" is brilliantly observed when they go off to bed: Bea climbs the spiral staircase to her glamorous bungalow, while Delilah descends the steps to her simple room in the basement. With Louise Beavers giving the character of Delilah light touches of comedy and innocence, and Claudette bringing her equal emotive skills to the table, both women remain likable despite the itchy subject matter. The one character who isn't fooled is Peola (Fredi Washington, a genuinely light-skinned African American woman), who clearly recognizes the difference between her mother and Bea and soon enough decides that she too wants to be white. And why wouldn't she? Who wouldn't prefer wearing elegant gowns and throwing hot-to-trot soirees to massaging the boss's feet? (The "happy" family, left).
Equally, Sarah Jane in the '59 version (Susan Kohner) recognizes her limited life choices as a black girl. In this version, white heroine Lora Meredith is a much more determined albeit conscientious character. As much as she loves her daughter Susie or the wooing Steve, she wants to be an actress most of all and nothing is going to stop her. The severity and danger of Lana Turner works perfectly in the role, who is clearly crawling out of some hole that she refuses to ever re-enter (unlike Colbert, who was simply a single mother trying to survive the depression). Glamour matters, fame matters, money matters-- thus, in this film, it is clearer that Lora too is engaging in an "imitation of life," one that the magazines have taught her is the truth. Sarah Jane has apparently been reading the same articles and looking at the same pictures-- all with smiling, white faces. Her mother, Annie, is not offered an independent way up in the world, as Delilah was in '34, but instead is put to work for Lora with no argument or other ambition. In both films, it is the black matriarch who is not playing games, who embraces her true position in life and does not try to combat it. Yet, the performance of Juanita Moore as Annie in '59 makes this character much more believable and integrous. Her warmth and honesty make daughter Sarah Jane's treatment of her all the more painful to witness, especially as she is the pure, moral compass of the story. While one can fault her for not pushing for a better life, she is too smart, too savvy, and too full of character to make such an error. She accepts who she is, her color, and her heritage, and when SJ tries to reject these same things, Annie tells her plainly and sternly, "It's a sin to be ashamed of what you are." SJ, of course, won't have it. (Annie tries to reason with Sarah Jane, right).
In both films, the black daughter has no qualms about expressing her disdain for her race nor resenting her mother for it. Out in the world, she easily passes for a white girl, and she can tell the difference in the way that she is treated. She ignores her mother when she comes to see her at school, so the other children will not know that she is truly black. When the truth comes out, she becomes hostile and flees. As she ages, her antipathy only increases. In '34, she runs away from school-- "one of those nice, black, southern schools"-- to get a job as a white girl at a restaurant. Where '59 has an edge on '34 is in how far it takes Sarah Jane's own attempts to escape her racial shackles. As a child, SJ doesn't want to play with the black doll, she wants to play with the white doll. As a teen, her rebellion becomes more intense. While Lora and her mother get along, she's no fool. She knows that Lora, while supporting Annie, too looks down on her-- a point made when Lora shows surprise that Annie has other friends, and thus another life outside her employ. SJ shows her contempt for Lora's feigned liberalism by mimicking a black servant in one particular scene, leaving Lora appalled and embarrassed. Whereas Peola's outside confrontations are merely implied, we clearly witness the tension of Sarah Jane as she permeates the wall between the black and white races. This most blatant example is that SJ starts dating a white boy, whom she intends to run away with and marry. In the most powerful and shocking scene of the film, she is confronted by her young lover, who mercilessly beats her when he discovers that she is "a nigger." Sarah Jane runs away, using sex as her only weapon of defense, and takes jobs as a showgirl at various clubs (left). If she can seduce a white man and get a ring, perhaps she can at last achieve salvation; at the very least, as a sexual being, she can garner as much attention as a white girl. In both stories, the Peola/SJ character finally breaks from her mother, who in the end dies of a broken heart. The black daughter is thus left to carry the guilt of her neglect and the personal shame of abandoning her roots. The white mother-daughter pairs, on the other hand, learn from these tragic mistakes and are able to avoid them, walking off into the distance untouched by such injustice.
While Peola/Sarah Jane may at first seem atrocious to audiences, her fury at her enforced situation is incredibly telling of current societal pressures, especially through Kohner's performance in '59. Her Sarah Jane is sadistic, masochistic, and brimming with rage. Yet, her character gains sympathy in her occasional softness with her mother, under whose gaze she finds it difficult to froth. Her desperation to run away with her boyfriend too engenders affection-- she so much wants to live the white, picket fence fantasy that she is willing to commit the biggest white lie to do so. To some, she appears an ingrate-- living in the Meredith family palace with her mother, Lora, and Susie-- who is her friend. But the naive bliss of Susie paints a stark (annoying) contrast to her own life, which is always one step below. Everyone tries to pretend that the two girls are the same, but they're not. They're different, just as Julie and Magnolia were not the same in Show Boat. The protective fortress of Lora's home is nothing compared to the cold outdoors. Why would SJ not want to carry the fantasy further? The audience has to forgive her for trying. Yet, she cannot be forgiven for denying her roots and turning a cold shoulder on her mother, (Peola turns on Delilah, right). In the rat race of life, all one has is one's kin, one's people, one's blood. The Delilah/Annie character bore all the burdens of a subordinate life to give her daughter a slightly better one, only to be shunned for her sacrifice-- the ultimate degradation for a mother. The black mother figure accepted the slow progression of life; the black daughter tried to jump too many hurdles into the future. She suffers the loss of her mother as a result-- the only person who truly loved her for who and what she was.
The most groundbreaking offering to this limited genre comes from none other than Elia Kazan. Elia was was known for his envelope-pushing films, especially in the opportunities they gave to actors. Each of his offerings seemed to crank the wheel of human progress a bit further, simply because he directed films with human honesty. No social issue, no dark crevice of the human soul was out of bounds. Under his guiding force, the female sex particularly had more of a voice with better roles and more compelling stories. Thus, it was no surprise when he was placed at the helm of Pinky in 1949 to tell the story of a biracial woman whose southern homecoming forces her to definitively choose an identity-- black or white. Starring in the film is Jeanne Crain-- everyone's favorite apple blossom girl with grit-- who is about as far from black as one can get. Again, Lena Horne would be dismissed as a leading lady, as would Dorothy Dandridge. Another possibility was Linda Darnell-- herself a half-breed of sorts, as she carried within her Cherokee blood. But, due to the usual studio stipulations and societal prejudices, Jeanne snagged the role. It is at least a testament to her that she was able to handle it with such grace and conviction.
"Pinky" is a young woman who has been away at college in the north studying to be a nurse. While there, she has been passing for white and too has fallen in love with a white doctor who knows nothing about her contaminated heritage. Her grandmother, Dicey-- played by Ethel Waters (with Jeanne, right)-- fills out the role of the moral compass of an earlier generation, one who holds onto the integrity of her roots while bearing the burden of a life that was bereft of even fewer opportunities than Pinky has been afforded. Elia Kazan paints vivid pictures of the stark difference between living life as a young, beautiful white girl and a young, beautiful black girl in various scenes, such as one in which the police interfere in an altercation between Pinky and two sinister men with obvious intentions. At first, the officer is on the innocent, harassed Pinky's side, until he learns that she is actually half-black, and thus all-black, at which point he quickly switches allegiance to the lechers. Pinky, though torn between her love of her grandmother, respect for herself, and disgust of the bigoted white race, cannot wait to return to the north and resume her life as a white woman. But cutting ties with her true self is not as easy as that, especially after she befriends and takes care of the ailing, wealthy Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Em leaves Pinky a hefty inheritance when she passes on, and immediately the town interjects, thinking it-- I suppose-- unconstitutional that a woman of color be given such a privilege when the money should go to Em's family-- family that had no care for the dying woman when she was alive. A court case ensues in which-- much to her surprise-- Pinky triumphs and receives the inheritance. Her fiance asks her to return with him to the north where they can go on pretending that Pinky is a wholesome, Caucasian girl, but Pinky refuses. She decides to stay and turn Miss Em's home into a clinic and black nursery school. She embraces her roots-- the antithesis to Peola's decision-- and makes a life for herself as her true self.
In this film, we see an atypical success on all counts of the biracial woman. Just as Julie in Show Boat, Pinky at first wants to escape the constraints of her skin color and "live the dream," as it were-- the white dream. Like Peola, she wants to ignore her roots and pass as a white woman to do so. However, she finds a success that these two women did not. The end cases for both Peola and Julie were negative in that, despite their comeuppances and martyrdoms, they always maintained the bitter pill of guilt for their choices. They rebelled only to be struck down and forced to live with regret. Why? Because they denied half of their identities. Julie did not try to deny her blackness so much as she tried to ignore it. When she was severely reminded, she went about punishing herself, and never again tried to push for a better life. Peola completely rejects her blackness so that she may live this self same hypothetical life of privilege and too is castigated. Pinky may begin with the same intention, resenting her mixed race-- or at least half of it-- but in the end she comes to an acceptance of self that elevates her from a place of shame and remorse. She refuses to live a lie with the man she loves, and thus embraces the roots that society tells her she should shun-- the fatal error that Peola committed. Yet, she refuses to live as a victim to this, the fatal error that Julie committed. Instead, she becomes an entrepreneur, starting her own school, running her own business, and thriving in a society the way a white woman could-- Hell, the way a white man could! She will not be shackled by racism nor any of man's bigoted laws. She marries her pride in her African roots with the benefits that a full white woman of the time was expected to enjoy, and in truth she does better. She succeeds because she possesses no self-denial.
What makes this last film an even greater historical success is that this mixed race character is the main character. She is not the sad, supporting character that the leading lady is meant to learn lessons from. There is no angelic white girl to contrast with or dominate her. She is the one learning lessons, she is the one triumphing under adversity, she is the one on whom the entire pendulum of the plot swings. While it is true that she suffers under the weight of her race, while she must sacrifice true love and thus not emerge an outright winner as a white female character may have, her abandonment of love is not necessarily a loss in that her love was not real to begin with. It was based on a lie and a denial of her true self. Thus, in letting go of her white lover, she is able to live free and clean with dignity. Her strength is her gain. What is interesting is that, despite the fact that this film was made prior to the '51 versions of Show Boat and the '59 version of Imitation of Life, these latter films should still be made, taking a step backward after Kazan made such a great step forward. Though, I suppose this can be attributed merely to the fact that they were remakes. Yet, Hollywood would have to wait such a long time after this comparatively early contribution to see such another leap from cinematic prejudice-- one step forward and two steps back.
What can be said of the white-woman-in-a-black-woman's-role scenario is complicated to say the least. While these films have solid messages and great performances, the unorthodox or rather ignorant casting remains a strike against them. However, when placed firmly within their own distinctive timelines, they make more sense. In the history of America, we may like to believe that the swift hand of justice can come slamming down and shake the world up so violently that rightness may finally have its way... but this is not the truth, is it? Monumental change is only ever effected in baby steps, and so these films, by being plopped into the human pool, enacted a ripple effect that would in turn engage further human discussion and brotherly comprehension. This is what makes the medium of cinema so great, particularly in a world heavily populated by visual learners. You can tell man "how the other half lives," for example, but until he sees it with his own eyes, he won't get it. What he sees, he shall believe. It takes a long time for human beings to wear down a path into a road; a long time for these various roads to meet each other and connect us all on our various quests. So, these films, as prejudiced as they may be in retrospect, were still solid, firm footprints in the dirt, leading a way to understanding that the writers, directors, and actors could only hope the rest of society would follow and, hopefully, improve upon.