That Old Feeling: Basic Black

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KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP

Halle Berry accepts her Oscar for best actress

Oscar Night, exactly a month ago, was a proud moment for African-American actors. A Life Achievement award to Sidney Poitier; Best Actor laurels to Denzel Washington; and the Best Actress statue to Halle Berry. In her emotional acceptance speech, Berry shook off the happy heaves and dedicated her prize to a sorority of splendid sisters: Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Viveca Fox and "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Berry voiced her hope that black actresses might soon enjoy equal opportunity for black actresses. Ironically, this equity that would have been easier to achieve in Hollywood's so-called Golden (read: Caucasian) Age, when actresses were not merely ornaments to stud stars, and women's roles were not appendages in macho movies. Then, the dream factory custom-made its shiniest vehicles to suit the likes of Garbo, Stanwyck, Crawford, Lombard, Monroe, Shirley Temple and two ladies named Hepburn — but not anyone of color, no matter how talented or glamorous she might be. That was the way things were. Hollywood relegated blacks, actors and actresses, to the corner of the frame, to menial roles, to dialogue that usually ran the tiniest variations on "Yes, boss" and "Now see here, Miss Scarlett!"

The town's moguls, most of them outcasts from Eastern Europe, imported actors from all over the world, but for decades they couldn't confront the perceived American prejudice against a people who had been in this country for centuries. It's not that blacks, when given the rare and fleeting chance, had proved themselves incompetent performers. They lit up the screen — only to be consigned to oblivion. I smile in recollection of the pretty passion that Nina Mae McKinney poured into "Hallelujah," the agitated grace Fredi Washington invested in "Imitation of Life," the power and subtlety of Paul Robeson in "The Emperor Jones." And I curse the absence of all the other sharp or magnificent characters these artists and countless others might have embodied, if only the door had been opened, if only... if only everything had been different.

CAST IN BLACK

To understand the context for Berry's remarks, and to find true resilience under pressure, you have to look not only at the few opportunities for blacks in mainstream product but at the B-minus movies called "race films." Here you will discover the Negro Leagues of cinema: separate and unequal facilities that showcased America's most gifted and excluded minority.

When black actors and directors found little honorable work in Hollywood, they created or inhabited their own demimonde — black-cast films, more than 500 of them between 1916 and 1950, most of them made independent of the studio system, some of them directed by blacks. They gave African-American audiences a chance to see themselves, on the big screen, in roles other than predators, cartoon buffoons and domestic servants — or, to quote (uncomfortably) the title of Donald Bogle's synoptic history of blacks in movies, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks."

Bogle's is one of a small, sturdy shelf of books about race films. Here are a few from my own shelves: Thomas Cripps' "Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942" (mostly about 30s Hollywood's view of race relations); John Kisch and Edward Mapp's "A Separate Cinema," replete with hundreds of color reproductions of movie posters and a good Bogle introduction; and Henry T. Sampson's invaluable "Blacks in Black & White: A Source Book on Black Films," which offers the most detailed history of the companies that produced black-cast films and the personalities who made them fascinating as art and artifact.

Some race films are shown on TV each February as part of Black History Month. But they also pop up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and indie channels, and they're available in many video stores. The movies are worth tracking down. Made on a frayed shoestring by Poverty Row grindmasters, these pictures can't compete in polish or, often, simple competence with Hollywood fare. Modern viewers are likely to giggle at the films' technical flaws, groan at outmoded racial attitudes on display. But their very naïveté makes them more persuasive as reflections of the black-white zeitgeist of the 30s and 40s. Art did not intervene; intended or not, these are documents of a vanished era.

What's fascinating is how hard most back-cast films tried to "pass." They were counterfeit Hollywood movies, with familiar gangster and rags-to-riches plots and, unless the star was a famous musician, light-skinned leading players. Ralph Cooper was top-billed in the 1938 "The Duke Is Tops, "a genial backstage story about a producer who lets his protégé find her own way to stardom. The ingénue was played by 20-year-old Lena Horne, in her movie debut. When Horne was signed by MGM, the film was rereleased, this time as "The Bronze Venus;" Horne's name was now at the top, Cooper's in agate print below. Cooper would emcee Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre for 50 years; at the end of which he could still boogaloo and scooby-doo like an octogenarian Michael Jackson.

The Internet Movie Database identifies Herb Jeffries as being of "Ethiopian-French Canadian-Italian & Irish descent," and notes that one of his five wives was the stripper Tempest Storm. Jeffries was a mellow baritone; he had sung with Cab Calloway. On screen, as Herbert Jeffrey, he became the smoothest cowboy west of Sugar Hill in four sagebrush sing-a-longs made in the late 30s at a black-owned California ranch. As Bogle observes, Jeffries and his light-skinned leading ladies were the "whites" in these films; the supporting roles were taken by dark-skinned comics like Mantan Moreland.

Black-cast movies are a fertile field for research, especially as the field keeps growing; a couple dozen of these films, previously believed lost, were discovered in the 80s in a Tyler, Texas, warehouse. The much smaller category of black-directed films are even more provocative, as we'll see in the next That Old Feeling, when we consider the careers of Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, Jr. But while you're waiting for the shipment of videos you've ordered from the Black Artists of the Silver Screen section of Hollywood's Attic, consider the careers of four outstanding African-American actors.

NINA MAE McKINNEY

Variety, reviewing her film debut, called her "the Clara Bow of her race." When she toured Europe in the 30s she was billed as "the black Garbo." But based on her one starring role in a Hollywood film, McKinney was more the black Jean Harlow — pure impurity on screen. Even that's not quite fair to Nina (rhymes with Dinah), for Harlow's was essentially a comic persona, lacing fake baby talk into the braying of the gold digger who's already a little tired of the priapic effect she has on men. McKinney, though her signature character is frequently described as a child-woman, didn't play at being a grown-up. She was one: born to be, doomed to be. She embodied the primal w-o-m-a-n: Eve, Jezebel and her own creamy self.

McKinney was just 16 when she was cast as Chick, a calculating floozy, in King Vidor's 1929 "Hallelujah." With baby fat maturing into a soft voluptuousness, she radiates an uncut sexuality rarely seen in black or white actresses then, or for decades thereafter. Her volcanic rendition of Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle" (using exactly the leg and hip moves that would make Elvis Presley a star) quickly lures Zekiel, a naive sharecropper, into her arms and, just as quickly, into a loaded dice game run by her no-good lover. Chick then gets religion and makes a stab at domesticity, but her noble aims don't suit a body designed for hot lovin' and a soul drenched in deceit.

Vidor wanted Ethel Waters to play Chick. (Daniel L. Haynes, the baritone who brings a barrel of robust charm to the role of Zeke, was a sort of road-company Robeson.) But Waters — or Honey Brown, whom Vidor fired and replaced with McKinney — couldn't have sold sexuality, with all its lures, all its destructiveness, the way Nina did. Before deserting Zeke for the last time, Chick douses his suspicions of her infidelity by walking toward him and purring, "Let cha baby sit on yo' lap and make ya feel so good." She takes a heavy breath before the word "feel", which she gives an extra erotic syllable. She perches on him, humming him senseless with "St. Louis Woman," then sashays off for her rendezvous with comeuppance. At her death, her huge eyes still glow, as if she were — for once, and at last — a child trying to comprehend her life's sentence trapped in a woman's curves.

McKinney, who had never before been in front of a camera, gives a performance that is raw in the best sense. It captures Chick's coarse appeal as well as her inability to conquer the impulses that make her irresistible to men — for her, anatomy is destiny. The part should have made her a star, and MGM did sign her to a five-year contract, but her only other prominent Hollywood role was as a world-weary hotelkeeper in the 1931 "Safe in Hell." She made three films in Britain, including "Sanders of the River" with Robeson, before returning to a featured part in the Ralph Cooper "Gang Smashers." In the 40s she had one decent Hollywood role, in the passing-for-white drama "Pinky," but mostly she played the one available character for black actresses: maid. She was dead at 55.

CLARENCE MUSE

Take the four most piquant black actress of the pre-Dandridge era — Nina Mae McKinney, Fredi Washington, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne — and add up their film credits: 55, according to the IMDb. Muse amassed at least 140 movie acting credits (18 in 1932 alone) in a film career than spanned a half century, from a starring role in the 1929 "Hearts of Dixie" to a supporting part in "The Black Stallion" in 1979. (He died that year, one day short of his 90th birthday.)

A sturdily built man whose demeanor signaled earned wisdom and a sensible pride, Muse was resourceful and adaptable enough to find work and make it work for him. He acted on TV, playing Sam in the 50s TV series "Casablanca." He wrote scripts for two films: the 1939 musical "Way Down South," a collaboration with Langston Hughes (the only movie work the poet-playwright-essayist did), and, the following year, "Broken Strings," a sweet-tempered indie drama in which Muse starred. An impressive resume. Just as impressive is that he achieved this screen familiarity without bending overmuch to the meanest stereotypes expected of black actors.

Muse played his share of chauffeurs, Pullman porters, janitors, butlers, waiters and shoeshine men — but that speaks to Hollywood's limitations, not his. If the actor were to have appeared in roles closer to his own experience, he might have played lawyers (he had a degree in International Law), composers (he co-wrote the hit "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and helped score six movies), theater people (he starred in Dubose Heyward's "Porgy," and directed plays for the Federal Theatre Project) and community leaders (he was an executive of the Hollywood Victory Committee during World War II).

In the race movie "Broken Strings," well directed by western-movie specialist Bernard B. Ray, Muse is a violin virtuoso who turns bitter when he loses use of his left hand and is reduced to teaching the instrument he can no longer play. Muse's Arthur Williams is part Svengali, part Phantom of the Opera, and a big part any adult frustrated by the seeming lack of dedication the young bring to their studies. It's the rare film, for black or white audiences, in which good people can seem heartless or insubordinate for the best reasons, and where classical music gets the upper hand over le jazz hot. At the end, the teacher learns a thing or two about the music his loving children love to play. "My heart still belongs to the Masters," he says, referring to Beethoven and Bach, not plantation slave lords, "but look what swing has done for me!"

In his film work, Muse was a virtuoso and a teacher too. He taught the white audience that a black man could be a person of substance, complexity and moral grandeur. That was quite an accomplishment then; it's not all that common now.

FREDI WASHINGTON

She had a face, figure and elegance made for the movie screen. "Her features were sharply defined, her hair long, dark and straight, and her eyes a vibrant green," writes Bogle of Fredericka Carolyn Washington. "In Harlem society in the 1920s and 1930s, she and her sister, Isabelle, were legendary beauties, hotly pursued and discussed." Washington's light-skinned beauty both enhanced and abridged her showbiz career; but her exotic outsider status pursued her, defined her, wherever she went. Her husband, Lawrence Brown, was a trombonist with Duke Ellington, and in the 30s she would occasionally accompany the orchestra on dates in the American South. Josephine Baker's adopted son Jean-Claude has said that the black musicians "could not go into ice cream parlors, so she would go in and buy the ice cream, then go outside and give it to Ellington and the band. Whites screamed at her, "Nigger lover!'"

Hollywood wouldn't let Washington pass for white (not that she tried to); it hadn't the ingenuity or the balls to use her talent and charisma to her and the cinema's full advantage. She was a movie star without movies — in films for just a few years in the early sound era, and then only in those vagrant moments when a studio chose to do a movie about "passing."

In those days the phrase had an almost tragic poignancy. It meant not only secretly renouncing one's race but becoming a "real" American — to enjoy the privileges of equality and anonymity, back when a tenth of all citizens were denied access to voting booths, hotels, restaurants, rest rooms and a fair shake from the white majority. "America" was a club whose membership numbered 120 million or so. Why shouldn't those who looked as if they belonged in the club try to join it, if only as a kind of double agent?

Obviously there was risk, drama, in trying to pass. But the few films that approached the subject did so not as a quest or adventure but as a betrayal of family, roots, self. That was the message of Fredi's masterpiece, "Imitation of Life": know yourself. And if you're black, know your place.

So Hollywood passed on Washington. Yet she had a long, rich life (she died in1994 at the age of 90) in which she was associated with many prominent black artists. Born in 1903 in Savannah, Ga., educated at a convent school in Cornwell Heights, Pa., and at the Christophe School of Languages in New York City, young Fredi was dancing with the Happy Honeysuckles when she was 15. She worked as a bookkeeper for W.C. Handy's record company, and was soon appearing with Baker in the musical "Shuffle Along"(1921). She co-starred with Paul Robeson in the Broadway play "Black Boy"(1926) and with Ethel Waters in "Mamba's Daughter"(1939).

Washington made her film debut in the Dudley Murphy short "Black and Tan" (1929), in which she plays Duke Ellington's girlfriend, a dancer who performs despite illness and collapses after her big number. In this ambitious, primitive two-reeler, she delicately embodies the wild soul inside the dying swan; few actresses looked more wanly gorgeous than she does in her death scene. Murphy (who cast Fredi's sister Isabelle as the Other Woman in his Bessie Smith short, St. Louis Blues") also chose Fredi to play a prostitute in the Paul Robeson "Emperor Jones," where makeup darkened her skin so viewers would not think Robeson was consorting with a white woman. Washington's role is small and contra-textual: why would Jones leave town for the jungle when Fredi was ready to play?

The following year she was Louise Beavers' passing-for-white daughter in "Imitation of Life" — the meatiest role Hollywood had yet offered a young black actress in an A-budget film. The stocky, seraph-faced Beavers, who had worked as a maid to silent screen star Beatrice Joy (Mrs. John Gilbert), went on to play maids in many movies; she also followed Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel as the problem-solving maid in the early-50s sitcom "Beulah." In "Imitation," from the Fannie Hurst novel that has generated at least four movies, Beavers is Delilah, a single mom whose recipe for pancakes makes a fortune for her employer Bea (Claudette Colbert). Delilah is now a millionaire, sharing a mansion with Bea. Yet for her, upward mobility never gives her the notion of equality with whites; she insists on sleeping in the basement with her rebellious daughter Peola.

That's Washington. Seeing her, the white viewer thinks: Join us! Elevate the race — ours. The movie screen is only skin-deep, and surely glamour counts more than an ancestor's color. Peola thinks that; she glides on the edges of white society and wonders why, if Bea could ascend to it via money, a light-skinned young woman couldn't do it with prettiness. She has a wonderful mother who is exactly the wrong mother for her, so far apart are their respective ideas of what is possible and proper. Peola runs away from home, finds a job — cashier at a nothing little restaurant — and couldn't be happier with a position most white girls of her beauty and drive would find demeaning. When Delilah spots her through the window and begs her to come home, Peola denies her mom, as Peter did Jesus. To acknowledge her mother is to acknowledge the race she left behind to become an American.

Briefly back home, Peola gives another definition of passing when she warns her mother, "Even if you pass me on the street, you'll have to pass me by." She looks at Colbert and says, "Oh, I know it's terribly mean, Miss Bea. But you don't know what it's like to look white and be black. You don't know. I can't go on this way any longer!"(Washington's plangent contralto makes this line a heartbreaker.) Her exit line: "I know it's asking a lot. But I've got to live my own life. "On the movie's terms, this is only an imitation of life, a sham citizenship, and Peola will pay for it. After Delilah dies, of a broken heart, Peola appears at the funeral and, in one of the cinema's primal weepie tropes, throws herself at the casket. Perhaps we are meant to find Peola guilty of matricide. But in Washington's mien and method, we can't help sympathizing with her impulse. Her mother was the stay-back past of black polity; she is the get-going future.

Alas, Washington had no blooming future in movies. After "Imitation," she starred as a vengeful plantation owner in the indie voodoo drama "Ouanga" (1936), and had one more decent major-studio part, billed fourth in the Fox drama "One Mile from Heaven"(1937). Washington's duskily refined gorgeousness scared Hollywood bosses even as it tempted them; she took the hint and went back to New York. She co-founded the Negro Actors Guild of America and wrote theater reviews for The People's Voice, published by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was at the time married to Isabelle. Later Fredi was a casting consultant on the Dorothy Dandridge-starring films "Carmen Jones" and "Porgy and Bess," the most lavish black-cast musicals of the 50s. She devoted most of her productive life to civil rights causes that tried to redress the indignities she and others had suffered.

PAUL ROBESON

For 30 years Robeson was a legend, a giant, an epic figure, a cue for awe and resentment. He would earn a place in any history of race relations by being the first black man in movies to call a white man "boy."("Take care of the camels, boy," he genially tells his costar in the 1937 "Jericho.") But Robeson was much more than an uppity, or for that matter heroic, film star. Then and now, one gazes up at him and asks: How could one man — and a black man, at a time when African Americans were denied basic rights — have achieved and symbolized so much?

A college football phenom (just the second black man to be named a football All-American), Robeson went on to play pro ball while studying law at Columbia University (just the third black to be admitted to the program). The notion of Robeson at the bar, pleading cases for the underprivileged, instructing the Supreme Court in the justice due all men, is an enticing fantasy; but in the 20s that was as likely to happen as Robeson was to be named president of U.S. Steel. His brilliance would have to be deployed in an arena where blacks had already achieved a level of acceptance. That's entertainment.

With no professional acting experience, Robeson was cast as the lead in Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones." He played Joe and sang "Ol' Man River" in stage and film versions of "Show Boat." He was a star in American and British movies, a magnetic concert basso, a sensation as Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft in London and Uta Hagen on Broadway, a prescient advocate for African self-determination. He was also a stubborn apologist for communism, Stalin-style. In one Promethean personality were packed the power, glamour, pathos and tragedy of black dreams and leftist myopia in the 20th century.

He is the perfect subject for a reverent Hollywood bio-pic. That won't happen, for one reason: no actor today could match the breadth of Robeson's talents, the pull of his charisma, the solitude of his pioneering outsider status. Or the depth of his fiery, finally wayward commitment.

The son of a runaway slave who became a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, N.J., Paul showed grit from early manhood. When he went out for the Rutgers University football team, other players beat him up and pulled out his fingernails; he bore the abuse to prove his worth, and when he graduated he was a two-time All-American and the school valedictorian, exhorting his classmates to "catch a new vision." Robeson did. Four years later he was starring for O'Neill, giving the first concert composed entirely of songs by African Americans and playing the two lead roles (as a philandering preacher and his sweet-souled brother) in Oscar Micheaux's silent film "Body and Soul."

In this, his one "race" film, Robeson plays both the venal "Reverend" Isaiah T. Jenkins — an ex-con who wows the faithful with his sermons and woos them with a brutal hand — and Isaiah's saintly brother Sylvester. Of course it's Isaiah who gets the screen time, because Robeson could seize the screen by pouring more of his roguish majesty into the part. Isaiah wows the church ladies with his orations, then sullies their virgin daughters and pockets his victims' life savings (hidden in a Bible!). The actor's playing here is as broad as Broadway, but Micheaux wasn't looking for subtlety. He wanted cinematic sex appeal from his famous young star, and got it.

If America and its film industry had not been so profoundly racist, Robeson would have been on his way West. But Hollywood thought that blacks should simply shuffle and mewl; so Robeson's one major U.S. film role was in Dudley Murphy's 1933 independent film production (released by United Artists) of "The Emperor Jones." The spectacle of Robeson lording it over not only black savages but a white trader in the 1933 "Emperor Jones" film was galvanizing. And threatening: he'd have to find film work elsewhere.

So he went to Britain, where he lived for the rest of the 30s. In a quartet of modest, engaging films, Robeson would sing, act a little, show off his burly torso, flash that intoxicating smile-and, uniquely for a black actor, get top billing above whites. He played African kings, or ordinary Joes who somehow take over tribes, in "King Solomon's Mines," "Sanders of the River," "Song of Freedom," "Jericho"; all tapped into Robeson's natural nobility. As Roland Young says in Solomon, "I always thought that fella had a spot of royal blood in him."

Robeson often signed for films expecting script approval, only to feel trapped in stereotype by the time of shooting. So the camera catches him in the corpse of his original enthusiasm--an actor's version of passive resistance. Perhaps his naivety was as huge as his talent. He believed that Hollywood moguls would give a black actor (any actor) final cut, and that Stalinism was not slavery but liberation. Through three decades of Soviet tyranny (including the murder of one of his Russian-Jewish friends), he remained faithful to the U.S.S.R. And here his charm failed him. He could sell sand to Saharans, but he couldn't peddle Stalin to America. Widely popular in the early 40s, he was a pariah by 1950, denied a passport until 1958, spurned by mainstream black groups, forgotten in the civil rights struggle he had championed.

Two related and, I believe, obvious, points need to be made. One is that Soviet Communism was a dour, acquisitive tyranny; and leftists in the U.S. and Europe who believed in this failing light despite reams of damning evidence were, at the very least, lying to themselves. The other point is that a man should not be punished for saying what he thinks. If Robeson rejected a homegrown system of oppression to embrace another, more toxic one, that was his right. He should no more have been denied a passport then than he should be praised for stainless political acuity now.

In May 1952, forbidden by the State Department to leave the country, he stood on a flatbed truck at the U.S.-Canadian border and sang to a cheering crowd of 40,000 Canadian union members. (On May 18, fifty years to the day after, the event will be memorialized where it took place, in the Here We Stand concert in British Columbia). For the occasion Robeson altered Oscar Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River" lyrics to reflect his dogged political passion: "You show a little grit/ And you lands in jail./ I keeps laughin'/ Instead of crying',/ I must keep fightin'/ Until I'm dyin'..."

Robeson's legacy is a tribute to his achievements, stubbornness and grandeur. It is still worth fighting over, still worth fighting for.