The role of African American actresses during the early years of the motion picture is perhaps one of the most interesting studies for many historians.
This is because of the controversial stereotype roles that were presented in the films. Dating back from the era of silent films, African American women were depicted as nursemaids, servants, slaves, and seductresses.The themes that were incorporated in the storylines were somehow created in order to please the viewers of the specific films. Yet, majority of the films depict black characters negatively which gravely impact the African Americans as a whole (Sylvester, 1999).
Although many African American actresses consistently portrayed such roles, their spectacular performances became the groundwork for the African American women who have followed their footsteps. Since majority of the icons that people look up to came from the motion picture, this paper will be a short history of the quest of some of the past and current African American actresses who have become a part of the silver screen.Hattie McDanielOne of the pioneers of African American actresses in motion picture was Hattie McDaniel. Hattie McDaniel was born on the 10th of June in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas.
As a child, McDaniel was a church singer. She was on the road for a tent show when she was a teenager. Because of the onset of the Great Depression, little work was available for vaudeville players.In order to support herself, McDaniel worked as a bathroom attendant in a club in Wisconsin which is known as Sam Pick’s club. It was a general policy in the club that only white players are allowed to perform onstage.
However, the patrons of the club recognized the singing prowess of McDaniel and requested for the owner to make an exemption for her. She worked at the club for more than a year (“Hattie McDaniel,” 2008).Before McDaniel landed a career in Hollywood, she first secured a small role on a radio show known as “The Optimistic Do-Nuts” in Los Angeles in 1920’s. She was known as Hi-Hit-Hattie whom later on became the main attraction of the program. From then on, McDaniel was considered as the very first African American woman to hit the airwaves (“Hattie McDaniel,” 2008).
It was in early thirties when McDaniel was able to penetrate Hollywood by landing on cameo roles. She later on graduated from small speaking parts and began portraying roles as a maid. From then on, Hattie McDaniel was tagged as the queen of the mammies.Although McDaniel always landed on servant roles, her character depicts strong women who are steadily assertive. From her debut servant role in the movie “The Golden West” to her role as the maid of Katherine Hepburn in “The Mad Miss Manton,” McDaniel exuded dignity despite the degrading role.
Due to her continuous acceptance of servant roles, McDaniel was criticized by various people including the liberal black community. Still, this did not stop McDaniel from accepting such roles and responded to her critics: “I would rather play a maid than be one” (cited in “Biography of Hattie McDaniel,” 2008, n.p.). In nearly forty films, McDaniel played the role of a servant.
It was her substantial mammy role in the film “Gone With the Wind” that she is best remembered and was able to earn an Academy Award.Nevertheless, she was regarded as the first African American actress to receive the best actress in a supporting role award. Despite the fact that McDaniel was the one to receive the biggest ovation during the night of the ceremony, she was seated at the back of the auditorium because of the rampant racism during that time.Likewise, during the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” in Atlanta, it was reported that McDaniel did not want to go because she did not want to be the cause of trouble which was attributed to the extreme racism in the said area (“Biography of Hattie McDaniel,” 2008).By the end of the Second World War, McDaniel organized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other entertainment black troops that aim to end the stereotype roles given to black people.
Because of this, the gradual disappearance in the negative image of such roles in film became apparent. Unfortunately, this led to the decline of McDaniel’s career in Hollywood.However, due to the slow response of radio on the call to end stereotyping, McDaniel once again accepted the role of a maid named Beulah and became the very first African American to be on a radio program.The Beulah show was brought into television in 1950’s, and two years after the debut of the said program, Hattie McDaniel died of breast cancer (“Hattie McDaniel,” 2008).
Until the time of her death, McDaniel’s wish to be buried in Hollywood was denied because of the prevalence of racism (“Biography of Hattie McDaniel,” 2008).Nina Mae McKinneyAnother noteworthy African American actress during her time was Nina Mae McKinney. She was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1912 under the name Nannie Mayme McKinney. Both of her parents moved to New York City to try the opportunities that the state had to offer and left McKinney in the custody of her great aunt.
At an early age, McKinney worked as a parcel delivery girl and collector from the local post office. With the aid of her bicycle, McKinney made her trips and at the same time did stunts which eventually drew the attention of some locals and paved the way for her initial entrance into acting.By the time she was a teenager, McKinney moved with her parents to New York City and worked as a dancer in night clubs. The name Nina Mae was used by Mckinney during her performances (AT&T, 2008).Due to Nina Mae’s talent, she was discovered by King Vidor in 1929 and cast her in the film “Hallelujah” which was one of the first black sound films that presented the life and family of African Americans and later on became a classic. McKinney played the role of a young wanton named Chick.
She was highly commended for her natural acting abilities which made her portrayal of Chick to appear realistic. She became the model for other African American actresses.Although McKinney gained success in “Hallelujah,” she did not secure a leading role in the silver screen. Like any other outstanding actors and actresses during her era, McKinney assumed roles that were outlined specifically for black characters and partook in roles in independently produced and low budgeted black movies. Aside from this, McKinney was unknown to majority of theater goers during 1930’s. She eventually worked in other films in 1940’s.
However, with the rampant racism permeating Hollywood which continuously denied African Americans the opportunity for stardom, McKinney left the United States and brought her talent in Europe. She sung in various night clubs and cafes in Europe’s major cities, such as London, Dublin, Budapest, and Paris, as well as in Greece where she was called as the Black Garbo.She also starred in the movie “Sanders of the River” alongside the great actor Paul Robeson when she was in England. She returned to the U.
S. in 1960 and managed to land roles in some “all-Negro” productions. Nina Mae McKinney died of heart attack in New York City in 1967 (AT&T, 2008).