I had a brief Twitter discussion the other day in regards to Will Smith’s later feature film titled “Focus.” Based off the trailer, Smith plays some sort of con man and brings in a young woman (Margot Robbie) under his wing, who together they try to swindle the wrong guy and all hell breaks loose. Being that this is Hollywood, it seems fitting that Smith’s character and Robbie’s have some romantic dealings with each other over the course of the film.
What’s striking about this to me is that once again Will Smith, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, (save for a few duds) has a white woman as his romantic interest. Some of you may be reading this wondering what exactly is the problem with this in 2015? The problem is that we still see far too few examples of black men and women loving each other in major Hollywood motion pictures.
Will Smith himself lamented about this very issue 10 years ago when the film “Hitch” was released. In that film, Smith plays an elite level matchmaker who meets his equal in his female counterpart played by Eva Mendes. Smith said something along the lines that Eva Mendes was chosen as his love interest because had they cast a white woman in the role, it may not have gone over too well here in the States, and had a black woman been cast, the movie might not do well in Europe with two black leads. So the studio decided to play Solomon and chose a Latina instead.
This has been an issue time and again in Hollywood and it’s something that still persists at a time when the Oscars are as white as they’ve ever been going back to 1998. I remember Gina Prince-Bythewood mentioned that when she was originally pitching her 2014 film “Beyond The Lights” to some of the major studios, they pushed her on why did she have to have two black leads. Why couldn’t she just cast Channing Tatum in the role that ultimately went to Nate Parker?
It’s questions like these that bring me to the photo above. It’s a magazine cover from 1955 depicting Harry Belafonte and the magnificent Dorothy Dandridge. ‘When Will Hollywood Let Negroes Make Love,’ was the pertinent question at the time. 60 years later, the answers aren’t any more clear.
|Photo by the AP
In 1960 Juanita Moore would become only the third African American to earn an Academy Award nomination. That would be the highlight of her career.
Juanita Moore was born in Mississippi in 1914 and passed away on January 1st of this year. She worked her way up from nightclub dancer, to background actress, to earning an Academy Award nomination for her role in the 1959 film “Imitation of Life.”
Following the nomination, work was not necessarily any easier to come by. Moore remarked that she actually got more jobs before the Oscar nomination because now casting directors couldn’t see her taking on any more maid/servant roles. It was an uncomfortable plight similar to what Dorothy Dandridge experienced.
In the years after her Oscar nod, Juanita Moore would continue to work in television and on Broadway. She was 99-years-old.
It’s often a joke that Black History Month takes place during the shortest month of the year. However, the lack of history — especially cinematic history of African Americans — taught in schools is no laughing matter. This lack of teaching can often be reflected in embarrassing displays of ignorance, despite the best intentions.
I remember one night during my sophomore year of college heading to the video section of the on campus library to rent a movie for a class project. It was February and so there were a few things going on in regards to Black History Month. As I’m walking towards the video department, I notice a display case with a sign above it that reads something along the lines of “Black History Month Films.” I took a peek at what films were in the display case and after seeing the selection of movies, I was ready to slap somebody. Stepin’ Fetchit, “Gone With the Wind,” “The Amos n’ Andy Show,” and, drum roll please . . . “Booty Call.” These were the names and films chosen to ‘honor’ Black History Month.
After being shocked and disappointed at the displayed movies, I wrote a letter to one of the people in charge at the library and he responded basically saying that he apologizes and honestly didn’t realize the offensive nature of the films displayed. This begs the question, why wasn’t he aware that these films might be controversial, and how come not one person rose their hand and suggested that perhaps featuring “Booty Call” for a Black History Month display was not the smartest of ideas?
Ultimately, I don’t believe there was any malicious intent involved with the choice of movies displayed, but there was a heavy dose of ignorance present. If these types of mistakes can happen at an institution of higher learning, then what does that say about the rest of our society? Not enough people know about Dorothy Dandridge, or the man known as the godfather of black cinema — Oscar Micheaux. Everybody’s heard of “Shaft,” but what about the man who directed it? Even the work of more current people like Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, and Julie Dash, could have been featured in that display case, but weren’t. What does this all mean? That when it comes to black history, if we really want to begin to understand the stories of more than 400 years in this country, 28 days in February is only the beginning of what should be a 365 day process.
46 years ago this month, the world said goodbye to Dorothy Dandridge.
Dorothy Dandridge is a name that is too often forgotten when it comes to women in the early days of Hollywood. Everyone has heard of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and the like. Well, Dandridge was every bit the onscreen presence these women were, but as a black actress in the 40s and 50s it was hard to get noticed and even harder to find consistent work. Hell, truth be told it’s still hard for women of color to find steady work in Hollywood and get recognized (see Taraji P. Henson).
What makes Dandridge so compelling is the fact that she wasn’t just an actress, but a singer as well. She was what you would call an all around entertainer. Perhaps best known for her work as Carmen in the movie ‘Carmen Jones,’ Dandridge was electrifying on screen and would even garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 1954. She didn’t win, but maybe more importantly, she proved she belonged.
Sadly, ‘Carmen Jones’ proved to be the high point of Dorothy’s career as she would spend the next decade with diminishing roles and increasingly high personal debt. The fact that she was even able to get prominent roles in Hollywood films could be seen as an accomplishment in itself considering the rampant racial discrimination of her era. Dandridge’s career might best be described in the last line of her biography on her IMDB page: “Had she been born 20 years later, Dorothy Dandridge would no doubt be one of the most well-known actresses in film history.”