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Scarcity of Roles for People of Color

scotrace

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James Lileks mentioned this Monday, and it got me thinking.

There weren't many good roles for black actors in all of the Golden Era. Take Sam McDaniel (brother of Hattie). He worked in films from 1929 until near the end of his life, in 1960. It's a remarkable long list of film credits. But the roles never changed: doorman, porter, waiter, servant, janitor, bartender, coachman, butler, handyman.

noir1.jpg



Of course, there were plenty of white actors who played the uncredited background roles also. Look at Walter Long - always the mug, the bookie, one or two lines. But as a block, black actors could expect to play few good roles at the forefront of a picture. A few come to mind: Hattie McDaniel got some plum roles. Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life. Bill Robinson. But those plum roles were as servants, or maids, or butlers, or cooks. The exception were musicians or professional musical performers like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, the Nicholas Brothers - they played musicians or made appearances as dancers.

So just as there were record labels that produced records for a mostly black audience ("Race Records"), there was a separate, segregated Hollywood that made films with all-black casts that were meant for audiences of people of color.

Did the actors in those films achieve the same kind of stardom among black audiences? Did any of them ever make the change to bigger budget films with white actors? Did they even want to? They were earning a living as movie stars, after all, and reaching a white audience may not have been a priority. It would be foolish to assume that any sense of personal success in the film business could only be achieved by appearing in made-for-white films.
Can anyone think of other African-American actors from the Golden Era who avoided the Pullman Porter typecasting?

One wonders how many very talented performers never got their shot. How many Morgan Freemans (best actor living, in my opinion) started out as a "Smokey, the bookie's helper" and never got an inch farther?

It makes the breakout of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier and others who came along in the 1950's all the more remarkable. Also, a study of the whole industry does seem to show that the movie business was indeed a reflection of popular culture and attitudes.
 

reetpleat

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Yes, very much a shame. SImilar to baseball. There were many famous succesful negro league stars, who would have been stars in teh regular leagues, but they couldn't. Still, they had their share of fame and money, but still were not appreciated by the white populace. Both their losses.

It isn't so different today. There is a very short list of black actors who will get a role that could as easily go to a white guy. They do get good roles sometimes, but often they are about black characters. So it is an improvement when Hollywoo tells black stories, but still rare. Will, Denzel, and Morgan are about it as far as getting roles that are color neutral. Anyone I am missing?
 

JohnnyGringo

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This is simply yet another sad example of the vicious racism that existed during this era, and the reality of the limited accessability to white audiences faced by many talented actors of color. Even those who had gained recognition amongst black audiences were generally overlooked for more serious roles by white Hollywood, as well as being shown a general lack of respect by their white contemporaries as well. It is disheartening to consider all of the many wonderful performances theatre fans have been deprived of simply because of the stupidity of racism. And scotrace, I would agree with your comment regarding Morgan Freeman, he is a wonderful actor.
 

Lady Day

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scotrace said:
Can anyone think of other African-American actors from the Golden Era who avoided the Pullman Porter typecasting?


I dont think you can. You had Jim Crow laws (and the stigma there after) that affected much of what was produced in early cinema. In very early films, black people couldnt even make appearances. You had white actors in blackface. Also the 'separate but equal' laws applied to much of life in parts of the country. That might be a factor in the black hollywood films.

It may also be good to note that these actors played characters of the 'doorman' the 'maid' and the like. And we have no way in knowing how talented these performs were because they were always stuck playing these caricatures.

I think it would be fascinating to see the types of character black actors portrayed in each of these genres. You had doormen, maids, and child care givers in the white hollywood films, and often working class mothers teacher and the like in old black hollywood.

I remember seeing Imitation of Life when they marketed the pancake mix thinking Beavers character cooked, used her recipe, and was on the box of her own product, yet it was the white woman who was making the most (70%-30% I believe that was actually stated in the film!) and was the star. Astounding!

LD
 

Feraud

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This thread brings to mind Spike Lee's film Bamboozled.

I wonder if the entertainment profession has changed from the old days.
Today there is a short list of black actors that work in mainstream(white) film. The list of females is even shorter.. Films made with more than one black actor are generally deemed (in an unspoken way) a "black movie" and goes mostly unseen by moviegoers.
This also applies to latino, asian, and other non white actors trying to make it in entertainment.

What really irks me is how white actors can make horrible films one after the other ( I am talking to you Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jennfier Aniston, Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, etc. etc.) and keep working while the same black actor gets one or two chances to make the film a hit.
 

Jovan

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I'd argue it's not quite as bad today, but there is still an awful lot of typecasting and lot of roles where the black men aren't portrayed as intelligent, serious, or really PEOPLE. But it is changing.

I'm a big fan of Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington myself. Haven't yet seen a Tyler Perry movie, but they look funny from what I've seen. The thing I want to see more of is roles for black women though. Zoe Saldana, Halle Berry (technically mixed race), Whoopi Goldberg and others have often gotten the spotlight, but one also wonders about the many perfectly capable women who could have roles now.
 

Dagwood

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Paul Robeson. A great singer and actor.

From Wikipedia: "Between 1925 and 1942 Robeson appeared in eleven films — all but four of them British productions — after he and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s. He remained there, with long periods away on singing tours, until the outbreak of World War II. At the height of his popularity in the 1930's, Robeson became a major box office attraction in British films such as Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley. Briefly returning to the US he reprised his title role in Dudley Murphy's film version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in 1933. The 1936 Universal film Show Boat was a box office hit for Robeson, and the most frequently shown and highly acclaimed of all his films. His performance of "Ol' Man River" for this film was particularly notable. He was Umbopa in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines. In films such as Jericho and Proud Valley, he portrayed strong black American male leading roles."
 

Twitch

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Quite true Scott. But Hollywood gone-by was real good at typecasting actors of all colors due to a couple screen credits. "Naw he's a cowboy type."
"He's not the gangster type." "She/he wouldn't be believable as a ____"fill in the blank.

Even breaks that led to success didn't assure anything. George Reeves might have killed himself because he was gonna be Superman forever! What could Bob Denver do after Gilligan?
 

scotrace

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Robeson! Good catch.

I think the difference between then and now is enormous. There are several actors of color working today who are plugged into roles that could go white actors (Halle Berry, Whitney Houston, Whoopi, Angela Bassett). But my point is that in the Golden Era, it was largely play the servant or nothing.

But then again, some were very successful and bristled at being judged for taking "lesser" work. Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, Stepin Fetchit, was a very successful actor of the Golden Era, who achieved big mainstream fame and a multi-million dollar fortune - playing comedic servants.

stev450.jpg
 

Feraud

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Regarding typecasting.. Hollywood certainly did typecast white actors as individuals but black actors were/are typecast as a group. A big difference.
 

dhermann1

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That pic, I believe, is from a great old movie called "Judge Priest". The relationship between Will Rogers' character and Steppin' Fetchit's is pretty respectful, for the era, but even in this film, Judge Priest makes a flip off hand little joke to himself about lynching Fetchit. Pretty shocking to modern sensibilities, but no big deal in the early 1930's.
 

Decodence

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Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson continually getting pushed back into the sea by the sealion in Topper Returns was appalling to my wife.
 

blacklagoon

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I remember hearing that the black actors,like Bill Bojangles Robinson,who starred in the shirley temple films,were not allowed sleeping accomodation while filming,and had to sleep under the stars and wherever they could find shelter.I do not know if that is true though,or just gossip and rumour,but i have heard it quite a lot over the years from shirley temple fans around my area.Even the children had to sleep rough:rage: if that is true,it is a massive blot on hollywoods history.
 

Jovan

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There are all kinds of blots on Hollywood history. For instance, making homosexual actors marry to keep their "lifestyle" a healthy image for fans, etc. The studio system kinda sucked.
 

SamMarlowPI

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Jovan said:
Haven't yet seen a Tyler Perry movie, but they look funny from what I've seen.

check 'em out...he is hilarious...some of the actors and actresses he uses are not the best and kind of corny delivering lines, mainly in the plays, but he has a ton of good messages about life and love and so on...some may not get alot of his jokes because he references alot of "african-american stuff" like movies, music, etc. that one would have to know in order to understand fully and obtain maximum laughage...Madea is very "ghetto" which some people may not like but most do...unfortunately because he uses a 98% black cast he is criticized and if you look on imdb i think all of his plays and films are between 1 and 4 stars out of 10 with the exception of Diary Of A Mad Black Woman which may be a 6...he is extremely successful though because he has a huge fan base that support him, me included...take a look at his productions though because they will have you rolling...he is currently up for nomination of Time Magazines Top 100 Most Influential People, or something to that effect...
sorry i hijacked the thread, i know it isn't about Tyler Perry lol...thought i'd give Jovan a little background info...
 

LizzieMaine

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In film, consider Clarence Muse, who played whatever role he was given with impeccable dignity. He's unforgettable in the rarely-shown 1929 Fox talkie "Hearts In Dixie," where he provides a serious and thoughtful counterpoint to the schtick of Stepin Fetchit. Consider also Juano Hernandez, who was playing dynamic men-of-action on film and on stage twenty years before Sidney Poitier. Consider also Canada Lee, who had a wonderful sense of world-weariness in any role he played, and never ever stooped to shuffling and grinning.

In radio and TV, consider Roy Glenn, an actor with a deep, resonant bass voice who consistently played authority figures and professional-type characters. He was a regular member of the "Amos 'n' Andy" stock company from the mid-forties onward, and showed up regularly on the A&A television show as well. (On several occasions, Glenn appeared on "Amos 'n' Andy" as a black FBI agent -- at a time when no actual African-Americans served with that agency!) Latter-day audiences know him best as Poitier's uptight dad in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," but he had a very long and distinguished career leading up to that role.
 

Josephine

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Dagwood said:
"Between 1925 and 1942 Robeson appeared in eleven films — all but four of them British productions — after he and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s.

I'm always... I don't want to say amazed, or astounded, more pleased and happy when I watch Doctor Who. They have multiple nationalities/colors of people in their show. They had an Indian woman playing the Head of PR. Not because they needed a person from India, but because she was the best one for the job.
 

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