From Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson to Viola Davis, Black acting has been a natural thing

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Hattie McDaniel

Each year the number of Black actors and actresses, producers, and directors gets longer and longer. This happens despite the built-in biases in the movie, theater, and television industries. That, however, should come as no surprise because historically Black acting has been a natural thing. They are just taking advantage of it in larger numbers.

From the positive side, acting is a cultural trait or talent that existed in many ancient African nations and tribes. Dramatic performances were quite common as a part of religious ceremonies; as a means of celebrating historical events, as a means of telling stories, as a means of transmitting messages, and as a source of entertainment. Acting was common in every part of the continent and utilized the talents of every age and gender in the particular tribe. That same tradition continues today. It did not die when the Africans were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

From a negative perspective, one can learn that many of the enslaved Africans exercised their acting talents in order to deceive their enslavers or white society in general. A great deal of the skinning and grinning, bowing and scraping, singing and dancing was “acting,” designed to win favor, to get more preferable treatment, or to avoid punishments from the enslaving class. Even after slavery had ended and Black people were being filmed for movies, characters like Mantan Moreland were clearly, “putting on the man,” with many of their antics. 

This negative portrayal of Black people on stage and screen was not only encouraged by white producers and directors. It was often the only condition under which Black individuals would be accepted as actors and actresses. The entertainment media has clearly been devoted to spreading negative stereotypes of Black people.

Unfortunately, beginning with the earliest appearance of an African American in film – Crane Wilber on “For Massa’s Sake (1902)” – one can trace their treatment in film in broad terms. (1) For the first fifty years, they were stereotyped and generally given only demeaning and/or subservient roles. (2) Gradually, under pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and unionized Black actors and actresses themselves, they began receiving roles that were more human and full-dimensional. (3) As a result of the pressures of the civil rights movement and even more from the Black power and Black is Beautiful movements, Black actors/actresses and American audiences participated in and/or experienced a heavy dose of “blaxploitation” movies. (4) Finally, beginning in the 1980s, under the influence of an increasing number of Black writers and directors, along with continuing pressure from Black viewers and organized actresses and actors, more African Americans have been cast in better roles and have been recognized with Oscar, Emmy, and Tony awards.

Entertainment writer Donald Bogle, in his book “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films,” has in very specific terms traced these portrayals. He complains that even into the 1970s, African American actresses and actors have been portrayed as Uncle Toms, buffoons, color-struck victims, criminal and overly sexual, or as super strong individuals. It is a book that rings true to a remarkable degree.

During the first fifty years of the film industry, racial stereotyping of Blacks was extremely widespread. The victimized actors and actresses included the likes of Manta Moreland, Stepin’ Fetchit, Louise Beavers, and Hattie McDaniel. The important thing to remember is that while they were capable and talented, there were virtually no credible roles available/offered to them. The roles which they played were just those described by Bogle, as Toms, coons, and mammas. None of them commanded enough attention to earn an Oscar award until Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar as supporting actress in the movie “Gone with the Wind,” filmed in 1939. (McDaniel realized that the mammy role which she played was demeaning. She, nevertheless, labored on with the hope that her true talent would be recognized and that she and other Blacks would subsequently receive better roles. Unfortunately, she died still being demeaned and discriminated against by the movie industry and the country as a whole.)

This is not to say that African Americans were not living up to the writer’s assertion that as descendants of Africa for them acting was natural. Black film maker Oscar Micheaux, for an example, produced films that were more credible when it came to Black portrayals. But they were often all-Black, fairly low-budget films. Consequently, they had limited circulation. During the same time period, it was also quite common for popular Black musicians, such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and Louis Jordan, to be included in movies, not so much to provide substance to the story or develop a true to life character as to be mere publicity for the film.

Over the decades, the likes of Ruby Dee, Nina Mae McKinney, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Fredi Washington, and Paul Robeson were added to the list of major Black actors and actresses. From that group Paul Robeson stands out because of his refusal to play the standard negative roles. Perhaps because of the fact that he was so multi-talented, he had other options. 

 Robeson was a professional athlete, a noted singer, a lawyer, and a social justice and political activist as well as a stage and screen actor. On more than one occasion, Robeson is recorded as recoiling from racist treatments during rehearsals and actual filming. His role in “The Emperor Jones” and others were noteworthy in 1933 and for years to come. It should also be kept in mind that at the same time that he was filming, he was doing quite well as a singer and was in high demand as a public speaker. 

On into the 1950s, new major Blacks made the big screen, the movies. They included, Ossie Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, William Marshall, and the singers Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, and Pearl Bailey. The early beginnings of the civil rights movement had the effect of “softening” the racist portrayal of Blacks in movies. It was also at this point that television made its arrival, offering other opportunities to Black actresses and actors. This continued into the 60s when Diahann Carroll, Diana Sands, Brock Peters, Abbey Lincoln, Cicely Tyson, Ivan Dixon, Raymond St. Jacque, Godfrey Cambridge, Jim Brown, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, and others became major Black actors and actresses.

The 1960s should be noted because it was in 1963 that the second Black individual received an Oscar award. Sidney Poitier was awarded an Oscar as the leading actor in the film “Lillies of the Field.” It had been nearly 25 years since Hattie McDaniel had gotten her Oscar. The civil rights movement had made the consideration more likely for Poitier; the courage of Robeson had played a part; and the talent and personality of Poitier had done the rest.

Public expressions launching the Black Power movement (1966) and “Black is the Beautiful” theme (1968) greatly affected Black movie making in the 1970s. It was during that decade that the so-called blaxploitation movies made the arrival. 

Bogle would say that phenomenon was simply the latest inadequate and exaggerated portrayal of Black people; it portrayed them as criminal, oversexed, and super strong. It is important to remember that more Black directors, such as Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, came on the scene and that more Black musicians and composers, such as Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, and Curtis Mayfield, were able to express their feelings about racism in America. All of this did not just reflect the themes of the blaxploitation movies. They were major players in implementing the phenomenon.

Among the explosion of Black individuals starring in these films were Ron O’Neal, Lou Gossett, Richard Roundtree, Woody Strode, Yaphet Kotto, Robert Hooks, Diana Ross, Bill Cosby, Fred Williamson, Paul Winfield, Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx, Billy Dee Williams, Tamara Dobson, Richard Pryor, Vonetta McGee, Max Julian, Pam Grier, Cleavon Little, Slappy White, Moms Mabley, Moses Gunn, Bernie Casey, and Glynn Turman. Those movies passed as the political climate of America changed, with many Black people feeling that it was a new day; that in order to take advantage of the new opportunities, attention must turn from the streets to the voting booth, schools, employment, and the courts.

It is noteworthy that while Poitier received his Oscar in 1963, despite the civil rights movement, the Black Power and Black is Beautiful phenomena, no Blacks received Oscars. Only four received Oscars in the 1980s and 90s – Louis Gossett, Denzel Washington, Cuba Gooding, and Whoopi Goldberg – all in supporting roles.

Meanwhile, the corps of major Blacks who have made names for themselves in the 80s, 90s and 2000s expanded to include Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton, Howard Rollins, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer, Aunjanue Ellis, Chadwick Boseman, and Viola Davis, among others. These actresses and actors, aided by such Black directors as Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, and Tyler Perry, continue the tradition of stellar acting. Since 2000, five from that corps have received Oscars for playing leading roles – Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding, Will Smith, and Halle Berry.

Those achievements fortunately indicate that Blacks are no longer relegated to the kinds of roles available to Hattie McDaniel. Indeed, in this century, four Black individuals have achieved competitive EGOT status (That is, each has earned an Emmy for television performance, a Grammy for music performance, an Oscar for movie performance, and a Tony for theater performance), attesting to their breadth and depth of talent in these arts. Those individuals are Whoopi Goldberg, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, and Viola Davis. The added feather in their caps is the fact that none of their performances were for performances in roles that were demeaning or subservient. 

We have thus moved from the days of Hattie McDaniel when the roles open to Blacks were greatly circumscribed. Paul Robeson was a major exception in refusing to be circumscribed or demeaned. The vast majority of African Americans did not have the resources, option, or assistance to follow his example. Today, however, for a variety of reasons, one finds that Black actors and actresses have reached a new plateau. They have journeyed from Hattie McDaniel to Viola Davis. 

In many ways, Viola Davis is perhaps the ultimate African American actress. She is the first African American actress and only the third actress of any ethnicity to win the Triple Crown of Acting. She is also only one of four African Americans to receive EGOT status. By her achievements, she demonstrates that the way in which African Americans have broken through the barriers and obstacles to excel in the 21st century, great acting by African Americans can be as natural and true as it was in ancient Africa.

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From Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson to Viola Davis, Black acting has been a natural thing

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 23, 2024