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The Fading Creative Control of Black Women in the 1930s

February 9, 2016

The rise and popularity of the Harlem Renaissance throughout the 1920s into the 1930s assured the presence of many African-American women in multiple facets of entertainment. Jazz and the Blues bubbled to the surface of mainstream radios bringing with it singers Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey, and Billie Holiday to the forward consciousness of American consumers. Authors, journalists, and poets including Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Nelson Dunbar, Jessie Fauset, Eulaice Spence, and Anne Spencer exploded on the scene writing their truths and promoting equality for women and African-Americans. Yet, film, the most easily digestible and among the most popular medium of the time, still continued to stifle the role of Black women both on screen and behind the camera masking and limiting their representation to the masses.

The illustrious success that many African-American women found in front of the camera is owed to the African-American studios that produced them outside of the Hollywood studio system. It is truly unfortunate that many Black studios folded under the weight of The Great Depression forcing most of the directors, producers, and actors who worked before the crash to return to trade and service work. For the lucky handful that continued on in the filmmaking business their prominence didn’t extend past the African-American audiences who went to watch the “Race” films they appeared in. Within Hollywood their roles were limited to servant or uncredited parts.

Singer and dancer Josephine Baker endured longevity and brought in the most expansive crowd as she became a cultural phenomenon in the 1920s. Baker went on to star in seven film during the late 20s into the 1930s, yet despite her irresistible sexuality and glowing persona she couldn’t break through America’s racially inclined strong hold to make a prominent film in the states. Her three biggest films Siren of the Tropics, Zou Zou, and Princess Tam Tam were all French productions. Baker became a French citizen in 1937 and embraced the popularity she received in the country and in neighboring parts of Europe.

While Baker found success overseas, those who faired for recognition in American found the task much more difficult. The handful of African-American actresses known to lead feature-length films as opposed to short musical reels during this time were Alice B. Russell, Dorothy Van Engle, Fredi Washington, Ethel Moses and her sisters Lucia and Julia, Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel. Of these women only three had extensive or prominent roles in Hollywood and only one got the chance to play more than a maid in a role.

Fredi Washington’s light complexion gave her the advantage of playing Peola in John M. Stahl’s 1934 drama Imitation of Life, a film that a 25 years later would get remade and recast with white actress Sarah Kohner revising the role. To add insult to injury Kohner was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a light-skinned Black woman who passes at white. Washington’s dexterity and wonderful acting skills haunted her throughout the years as the question of her own passing continued to get brought with many assuming that she did pass in her actual life. Washington replied to the sentiment by stating:

“Why should I have to pass for anything but an artist? When I act, I live the role I am assigned to do… I don’t want to “pass” because I can’t stand insecurities and shame. I am just as colored as any of the others identified with the race.”(Regester, 123)

Unfortunately for Washington, she was considered too light to play a maid and too dark to play a love interest in a major Hollywood film stifling her career to a standstill.

Black women seem to have possessed very little creative control in the representation of their stories and lives except minimally on the stage. In 1915, an African-American dancer, singer, and stage actress Anita Bush succumbed to a back injury that put her out of commission as a dancer founded the Anita Bush Stock Company. Having grown up in the theater, Bush wanted to prove to the masses that African-Americans could be serious actors and not just vaudevillian singers and dancers. On a whim, Bush offered her services to then owner of the newly renovated New Lincoln Theater offering to give the theater a play in the upcoming weeks. When her offer got accepted, Bush went out gathering an ensemble of actors and writers becoming the first group to operate in the New Lincoln Theater in New York City (Kennedy).

Bush’s company subsequently changed its name The Lafayette Players when the company moved buildings, but that didn’t dim the power of Bush’s eye for talent. The company throughout its reign would cast Evelyn Preer, Lawrence Chenault, Paul Robeson, Charles Sidney Gilpin, among other prominent Black actors who would go on to star in Broadway plays and films in the 1920s and 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance gave resonance to the theater group’s existence. The Lafayette Players were divided into four groups that performed serious dramas regularly in Chicago, New York, up and down the East Coast and throughout the South. Ahead of their time and with The Depression looming the company faded from existence, leaving its legacy in the actors that participated in it.

Bush laid out a path and opened the door for more African-American women to step through including Ida Anderson, Abbie Mitchell, and Evelyn Ellis. African-American Broadway actress Rose McClendon appeared in a slew of on stage productions before taking the reigns as director in 1935 when she co-founded The Negro People’s Theatre in Harlem boasting over 4,000 attendees at its first production of Waiting for Lefty. McClendon’s prominence became cemented when the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project formed under her supervision. FDR’s New Deal reform to help America out of the Depression allowed McClendon to guide the creation of theater units in Seattle, Philadelphia, Newark, Los Angles, San Francisco and Chicago.

McClendon also advised that the project begin under the direction of Jon Houseman who served as her co-director. A year later Houseman would go on to enlist the directorial lead of a then 21-year-old Orson Welles to direct a play for the company. Welles’ choice was to make an aptly nicknamed “Voodoo Macbeth”, a retelling of Shakespeare’s famous play loosely based on Haitian revolutionary Henry Christophe and set in Haiti with all-Black cast. McClendon was set to play Lady Macbeth but suffered from chronic sickness that would take her life that year. McClendon’s role in the project, however, resulted in Welles producing one of the most discussed plays of its time, a box office smash, and a halo over his career before going on to direct the greatest film of all times (Flanagan).

MacBeth

By the end of the decade Hattie McDaniel went on to become the first African-American woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind. Though the win would be a huge achievement for Black women in Hollywood it also halted progress to a grinding stop. McDaniel bathed in the glory of a win but still suffered from the reality that she had to to sit separately from her white co-stars during the ceremony. It would take another 50 years before another black actress to receive the award and 60 before Halle Berry became the first and only African-American to win Best Actress. Even still, creative control under the guise of an African-American women was still minimal at best during this time period and though more Black actresses would rise to fame in the 1940s, their role behind the camera was nearly completely wiped out.

 

Additional Citations:

Regester, Charlene B. African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960. Indiana: Indiana University Press 2010.

Flanagan, Hallie (1965). Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, reprint edition 1940.

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