Students of acting at The Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School have very little knowledge of individual actors and their contribution to to the American cinema. This is especially true of black actors. Since these acting classses are multi-racial, the students will respond to information about the struggle and accomplishments of black film actors.
The objective of my curriculum unit is to address this concern. We will seek to understand how race and its representation influenced the careers and opportunities of black actors. (In this curriculum unit I will use the term actor for both male and female performers.) We will study the work of individual actors. In the process of studying the black actor’s contribution to American cinema from the era of silent film to the present, we will also be studying race and representation in Hollywood films.
Film is one of the most influential means of communication and a powerful medium of propaganda. Race and representation is central to the study of the black film actor, since the major studios reflected and reinforced the racism of their times. The depiction of blacks in Hollywood movies reinforced many of the prejudices of the white majority rather than objective reality, limiting black actors to stereotypical roles.
My strategy for studying black actors in American cinema consists of viewing films and segments of films in order to aquaint students with the work of individual actors. We will accompany these viewings with biographies of the actors, information concerning the films, specific acting exercises on each film, and other relevant information to make up lesson plans. This material will stimulate discussion among the students and lead to performance and reenactment of key scenes from the films. Since there are a great many wonderful black film actors, selection of the actors for this unit has been especially difficult. I tried to follow a historical perspective and select actors from each decade, starting with
WITHIN OUR GATES
(1919). In some instances I selected films to make comparisons between acting styles of various actors. I also selected some films that were originally plays.
Special emphasis will be placed on the analysis of stereotyping as it applied to blacks in film. Stereotypes are simplified and conscriptive images of a group. In the history of race relations stereotypes have been used to demean or control others. Stereotyping the African slave in the United States began early. It was used to keep the black man and woman in a certain place in the social structure.
The two most perpetuated images of the slave were that of the “savage” and “child.” The “savage” was brutal, cannibalistic, ruthless, violent, and lustful. The image of the child was more subtle. Laws were set in place to protect whites against the African’s “barbaric” ways. In the concept of the child there were no laws except that of excluding blacks from the educational process. The concept of the child was developed orally and became part of white folklore. In this stereotype the black person was simpleminded, happy, slow-witted, easily terrified, playful, and dependent, which justified a white attitude of paternalism.
A complex black-white, adult-child, racist relationship was institutionalized into the popular culture. Slaves had to sing and dance for their masters. They had to perform to display their supposed happiness and contentment with their position. They were rewarded when they displayed happy, sunny dispositions and grins, and indulged in laughable pranks and capers. This idea of blacks formed the basis for the first indigenous American theater, the minstrel show.
From the 1840s to 1950s the minstrel show was the popular stage form. It is based on the supposed humor, song, dance, and demeanor of the plantation slave and the urban black dandy.
“White men in blackface appeared throughout the entire country,in cities and towns, on riverbanks and in saloons. Hundreds of professional troupes and thousands of amateur groups performed minstrel plays. School-children, church members, Boy and Girl Scout troops fraternal clubs, hospital groups, and many others applied burnt cork, mispronounced words and phrases, sang “black songs,” imitated “black culture,” danced “black numbers,” and generally acted the buffoon.” (1)
The focus of the minstrel was the inept but comical end man. An end man was the performer at either end of the chorus line in a minstel show who played the bones or tambourine and bantered with the interlocutor.
Examining the stereotype of blacks is essential to our work on this unit. Our class will examine the image of blacks in cartoons, comic strips, advertisements, food cartons, books, and magazines, and the image of blacks in ludicrous situations in film . We will note the usual single names of these characters (who bear no resemblence to any real person, living or dead): Uncle, Mammy, Rochester, Sambo, Rastus, Sam, Boy.
Sigmund Lubin produced the SAMBO series of all-black comedies. These films, produced between 1909 and 1911, were so successful that Lubin created a second similar series, the RASTUS films. Both series were filled with slapstick and the antics of a comic black man who “knows his place” and gets beaten up by laughing whites. At this time in the early 1900s, Hollywood took no stand on any social reform as far as blacks were concerned. In fact, with few exceptions, black characters were played by whites in almost all Hollywood films until after the First World War.
The following films may be viewed either in whole or in part to study stereotyping of black actors in film.
His Trust (1911)
His Trust Fulfilled (1911)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Little Colonel (1935)
The Littlest Rebel (1935)
20th Century (1934)
We will be studying Paul Robeson in this curriculum unit. We will see THE EMPEROR JONES, discuss the performances, and select scenes to reenact. Eugene O’Neill’s text of the play will be compared to the film. As students studying the actor’s art, we will note what is most impressive about Robeson’s films: that is Paul Robeson himself. Physically Robeson was such a towering figure that he immediately suggested strength. It would be difficult for him to ever be perceived as a weak character. Looking at his performances moment by moment we will see the great joy of the actor, especially when he sings. The actor with his gleaming eyes, his ironic smile, his great bulk . . . will lead us into discussions of one of the tenets of method acting . . . ”drawing on the self.”
Nina May McKinney was billed as “the screen’s first black love goddess.” MGM’s 1929 film HALLELUJAH was billed as the “ace of all-black pictures” and it was directed by one of the studio’s top directors, King Vidor. There were more than forty singing and dancing sequences in the film, including folk songs, spirituals, work songs, and blues. The film had a strong plot, but unfortunately the message was . . . blacks should know and stay in their place. McKinney plays “Chick,” a cabaret dancer who is led away from her night life by the male lead, played by Daniel Haynes. He becomes a preacher, and in a full-scale revival meeting at a river he baptizes McKinney and leads her to religion. The story progresses along melodramatic lines. This film and McKinney will be part of our study.
Comparing Hattie McDaniels’ and Ethel Waters’ films will be part of our studies. The class will read excerpts of Waters’ autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow. The story of her struggle up from a desperately poor childhood to the heights of Broadway success is a story of great courage. We will view at least two of her movies; PINKY, and THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. One class project will be to view the film THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, and then read and perform scenes from the play by Carson McCullers on which the movie is based.
Dorothy Dandridge, along with Lena Horne, has been called the “exotic, doomed mulatto.” A brillant actor and “star”, she spend her career having to play what was at heart the old, classic type . . . the tragic mulatto. CARMEN JONES was the 1950’s most lavish, most publicized, and most sucessful all black spectacle. Produced by Otto Preminger and released in 1954 it was based on Bizet’s opera CARMEN. The movie transforms the Spanish cigarette girl into Carmen Jones, a sexy black factory worker in the South. Audiences flocked to see the movie and it made Dandridge a star. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination as best actress of the year. No black performer had ever before been nominated for a leading actor award. Hattie McDaniel had won a best supporting actress award for GONE WITH THE WIND. Ethel Waters was nominated for best supporting actress. We will also look at the relationship in styles between Nina Mae McKinney, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lena Horne.
Ivan Dixon and the film NOTHING BUT A MAN will be included in our lesson plans. This movie was written and directed by Michael Roemer. The subject of the film is racism viewed from a Southern black perspective. Ivan Dixon (who later played the token black in the TV series HOGAN’S HEROES), has the lead role of Duff. Abbey Lincoln plays the sheltered, school-teacher daughter of a small town Alabama minister. This is her first screen appearance. This is also one of the first films of Gloria Foster and Yophet Kotta.
To conclude and bring us to the present, I will include Sidney Poitier an A RAISIN IN THE SUN, Denzel Washington in MALCOLM X, and Laurence Fishburn in OTHELLO. These three films will be studied in combination with play scripts.