Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Lena Horne

Gorgeous, gifted and preternaturally poised, 24-year-old Lena Horne came to Hollywood in 1941 and quickly became the first African-American movie star. Or at least, she should have — if Hollywood and America hadn't suffered from a corrosive racial prejudice. Horne, who died May 9, was consigned to a few studio-financed "race movies" (the very enjoyable Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather) and featured-song spots in movies which could be removed when the films played in Southern theaters.

As determined as she was beautiful, Horne instead fashioned one of the 20th century's most exemplary and poignant show-business careers. She triumphed on Broadway, TV and the concert stage, as well as on some 40 albums and occasionally in movies. A thrilling voice for civil rights, she refused to perform before segregated audiences on World War II tours; she collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt in passing anti-lynching legislation; and she marched with Medgar Evers in Mississippi and Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington. Gradually, America got it. Performing into her 80s, she remained a beacon for black performers, a divinity to audiences of all colors and a lingering, stinging reproach to the attitudes that had robbed her of her Hollywood prime.

Richard Corliss

A version of this story previously appeared on on May 10, 2010.