By tap-danced his way into the hearts
By Peggy S. Butler
that magical kingdom of mythical folklore, where dreams are made, has been
credited with creating an environment of racism and discontentment. Even the
name itself conjures up images of an industry where talent creates legends, and
physical attractiveness garner auditions.
Since its inception, the film industry has not been
receptive to Black performers, especially the early pioneers.
In the late 1920s as silent films faded into oblivion and
talkies became the new fad; there were only two roles available to Blacks- servants and buffoons.
While many performers refused to play such demeaning characters, four pioneers—Bill
Robinson, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit made careers out
of playing clowns and domestics. As a result, throughout their careers they
were criticized by the Black community. However,
they are credited with paving the way for today’s superstars.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949
Starring opposite child star Shirley Temple, Bill
Robinson tap-danced his way into the hearts of America in “The Little Colonel”
and “The Little Rebel”.
A veteran hoofer, Blacks loved Robinson’s soft-shoe
routine, but disapproved of his film roles. They detested how in The Little
Colonel he was cast as Temple’s play mate.
“Here was this dignified man, who was 57 at the
time, and he’s dancing up and down the stair case with this curly haired moppet
in a butler’s uniform, with this wide grin on his face,” says film critic
Donovan E. Majors. “Even more
demoralizing is when the script calls for Robinson to address 6-year-old Temple as “Miss Sherman.” In the film, Temple’s character’s name is Lloyd Sherman.
In an age of virulent racism, Majors said Blacks should
have been more sympathetic. “They failed to understand that these were the only
roles available to Black actors”. He went on to explain that in the ’30s, Black
filmmakers were few and far, so actors had two choices. They could take those
roles and make money, or abandon their careers altogether.
Although his roles were a source of embarrassment
for Blacks, Bill Robinson’s legend lives on via films and his
Louise Beavers (1902-1962)
Born in Cincinnati, Louise Beavers rose to
prominence playing the overweight-mammy, eager to tackle the problems of the
world. During her career, she starred opposite Hollywood’s biggest names,
including Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.
Her most famous role was that of Aunt Deliah in the
1934 tear jerker Imitation of Life. In the film, Beavers plays a
housekeeper who sells her pancake recipe to her White employer, who
subsequently becomes rich. Out of generosity, the woman offers the housekeeper
a 20 percent interest in the company. But the dutiful maid refuses the offer.
Deliah is so devoted, she insists that her employer keep every cent of the
profits. Today, the film would be boycotted by African-Americans, but in 1934 it
was a box-office triumph. White audiences loved the film, but Blacks found
Deliah ‘s generosity puzzling.
After Imitation of Life, Beavers went on to star in
other films such as ” House,” “New Orleans”, “Holiday Inn” and “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Recognized
today as an accomplished actress, however Beavers remains a sore spot among
Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952)
McDaniel, more than any other actress, personified Hollywood’s definition of the
subservient female servant. From a physical standpoint, she was the perfect
representative for White studio executives, who found her dark skin and ample
body, perfect for playing the wisecracking servant who dispenses advice at the
drop of a hat.
In dozens of films, McDaniel cavorted with superstars, but
it was “Gone with the Wind,” that made her a household name. As “Mammy,”
McDaniel more than held her own with the film’s stars Clark Gable and Vivian
Leigh. Audiences were so enamored with McDaniel’s portrayal; the Motion Picture
Academy of Arts and Science awarded her with a nomination for best actress in a
The nomination was historic. It was the first
designation for a Black performer. In 1940, McDaniel became the first
African-American to win an Academy Award.
Despite her win, Blacks were outraged that the Academy bestowed its
first Oscar to a performer whose role they considered demeaning.
Defending herself against Blacks who criticized her
for the roles she played, McDaniel told her detractors, “I would rather play a
maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.”
A terrific character actress, she is viewed by film
historians as a pioneer. Yet some Blacks still refuse to acknowledge her work.
When 500 African-Americans were asked in a 2013 poll to name the actresses they considered
great stars, McDaniel’s name was not mentioned, an observation many say is
In his book “Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America’s Black Female Stars,” author Donald Bogle writes
there was another side of McDaniel few were familiar with. “She set her own
standards and sailed through many films with an astonishing sense of self and
Stepin Fetchit (1902-1985)
From the late 1920s, until his death in 1985, Stepin
Fetchit was the man Blacks loved to hate. Their disdain for the veteran actor, stemmed from the fact that
he like Beavers, Robinson and McDaniel were cast in roles people of color
Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew
Perry in Key West, Florida. It was during the 1930s that Fetchit first played
the “bungling coon,” whose gestures were limited to eye rolling and a dialogue
comprised of gibberish
A mild-mannered man, Fetchit told his critics, the
characters he played were not representative of the real Stepin Fetchit. And he
was right. Away from the camera, Fetchit despised his roles, and was generally upset
about Hollywood’s portrayal of Black performers. He died at 83,
without garnering the respect of Blacks who never stopped criticizing his on-screen antics.
To Bill, Louise, Hattie and Stepin, we say thank
you, for having the courage to inundate
Hollywood, with that brilliant ray of
color, that was missing, and is
still missing, even in the 21st century!