Offers New Film Roles to African Americans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Stormy Weather and other big-band musicals created new roles for African Americans in Hollywood films, allowing some actors the opportunity to escape older stereotypes and take on more substantive roles.

Summary of Event

Prior to the 1940’s, African Americans in Hollywood films were generally limited to playing a few stereotyped roles, such as the mammy, the villain, the jungle dweller, the servant, or the jester. There were a few exceptions, however, including the films of African American director Oscar Micheaux. Even in films in which black actors were cast in servant roles, some were shown to be uninhibited entertainers or jesters, as in the films Hallelujah Hallelujah (Vidor) (1929) and Hearts in Dixie Hearts in Dixie (Sloane) (1929). Stormy Weather (Stone) African Americans;performers African Americans;representations of Hollywood studio system;African Americans in Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans Labor;racial discrimination [kw]Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to African Americans (July 21, 1943) [kw]Film Roles to African Americans, Stormy Weather Offers New (July 21, 1943) [kw]African Americans, Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to (July 21, 1943) Stormy Weather (Stone) African Americans;performers African Americans;representations of Hollywood studio system;African Americans in Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans Labor;racial discrimination [g]North America;July 21, 1943: Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to African Americans[00890] [g]United States;July 21, 1943: Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to African Americans[00890] [c]Motion pictures and video;July 21, 1943: Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to African Americans[00890] [c]Social issues and reform;July 21, 1943: Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to African Americans[00890] Horne, Lena White, Walter Willkie, Wendell Mayer, Louis B. Scott, Hazel McDaniel, Hattie

The African American as entertainer became particularly important in the musicals of the 1940’s. Dustpans and mops were exchanged for zoot suits and sequined gowns. As Hollywood’s African American singers, dancers, musicians, and acrobats grew in popularity, a platform evolved for them to display their talents. Unrelated song-and-dance numbers were injected into some films; African American entertainers would pop up and entertain the film audience, unhampered by a story line. Frequently, a nightclub scene would be introduced into a film so that performers would have a natural setting in which to entertain. Because such musical numbers were not integrated into the films’ plots, scenes featuring African Americans could be cut from a specific print of a film without spoiling the story should a local or Southern theater object to such scenes.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM), under the direction of Louis B. Mayer, offered its first long-term contract to an African American artist when it signed Lena Horne. The musical Panama Hattie Panama Hattie (McLeod) (1942) featured Horne, sumptuously gowned and playing herself, performing a Latin song. For most of her film career, Horne found herself limited to roles as an onstage performer. The studios had not made her into a maid, but they had not made her into much of anything else, either. Horne described herself as “a butterfly pinned to a column” in her films.

All-black musicals were considered a risk, and nearly fourteen years had passed since the last one was produced when MGM decided to proceed with Arthur Freed’s Freed, Arthur production of Cabin in the Sky Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli) (1943), directed by Vincente Minnelli Minnelli, Vincente . The film’s depiction of African Americans resembled that of earlier films. Blacks in the film were depicted as removed from the daily routine of American life, and the film’s characters were placed in remote, idealized worlds. Black stereotypes were played up, and folk culture was passed off as actual African American culture.

On July 21, 1943, Twentieth Century-Fox introduced a different kind of all-black musical: Stormy Weather. As in the integrated book musicals being produced on Broadway, the songs and dances of Stormy Weather were integral to the film’s storyline, which did not revolve around the stereotypes of Cabin in the Sky. Stormy Weather was the story of an African American dancer (portrayed by Bill Robinson) Robinson, Bill who wooed Lena Horne and eventually won her over. The film was also a revue of black entertainment as seen through the eyes of Robinson. Stormy Weather displayed the talents of such African American performers as Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, Ada Brown, and the Nicholas Brothers. In the South, where all-black films were usually shunned, both Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky reached the all-black movie houses, where audiences greeted them with enthusiasm. The films also enjoyed popularity at Army camps and abroad.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;African American media representations (NAACP) had been attempting to force change in Hollywood’s degrading treatment of African Americans for twenty-five years. With the success of these 1940’s musicals, the NAACP found one of its best weapons. The group’s big gun was Lena Horne. NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White assumed personal control over Horne’s career. White felt that, since Horne was beautiful and had not yet been typecast, she would be able to establish a different kind of Hollywood image for African American women.

This poster advertising Stormy Weather features Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and Bill Robinson.

Hazel Scott was another African American performer who refused to be typecast. She had been a child prodigy, reading by the age of three, learning piano at four. Scott grew into a demanding performer who never attempted to conceal her color or her fiery temperament. She refused to appear before segregated audiences or accept fictional roles in films, because she felt she would have to perpetuate stereotypes. Instead, she consistently appeared in films as herself, seated at the piano as she would have been in a nightclub. Her specialty was in blending classics and swing music in such films as I Dood It (1943), Broadway Rhythm (1944), and Rhapsody in Blue (1945). She invested her characters with refinement and taste by always sitting upright at the piano, professionally gowned and supremely confident. Unfortunately, her brand of militancy may have dampened her career, and many later African Americans viewed her as a woman who was simply trying to prove her worth.

Stormy Weather and the other big-band musicals of the 1940’s came at a time of war abroad; it was also a time when the war for racial equality was beginning to erupt on the home front. These 1940’s musicals were Hollywood’s first attempts, no matter how archaic by later standards, to move beyond black stereotypes. The musicals represented the first time African Americans could be seen out of their servant, mammy, or jungle costumes; they had been elevated to the status of acceptable, even glamorous, entertainers. Except for small glimpses of real-life characterizations in Stormy Weather, however, African Americans were still not portrayed as everyday Americans in everyday situations.

With the release of Stormy Weather and the other big-band musicals of the 1940’s, a new front was opening for African American artists. The social climate of the country was also beginning to change. Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, had aligned himself with the NAACP and was representing the organization in negotiations with the Hollywood studios. Willkie was giving the NAACP campaign new clout.

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued an executive order that forbade racial and religious discrimination in employment in war-related industries. Integration was being pushed by the government. Many of the more liberal studios agreed to follow new racial guidelines when depicting African American characters and to use African American extras whenever possible. New opportunities were beginning to benefit African American entertainers while paving the way for the emergence of sympathetic African American characters. The studios also strove to integrate more African Americans into behind-the-scenes jobs. Even Variety announced, “Better Breaks for Negroes in H’Wood.”

African American artists themselves were taking different paths with their lives and careers. Lena Horne and Hazel Scott were confident in their mission, although Horne sought to manipulate the system from within more than did Scott. However, other African Americans who had already fought for their niche in the Hollywood system did not want to shake up the status quo.

Horne, especially, was feeling the heat from other African Americans who were afraid that she was beginning a large-scale campaign on the part of African American actors to raise their status, and in the process, to eliminate jobs held by African Americans who excelled at the older, stereotyped roles. One unofficial but influential group of African American Hollywood actors protested her close association with the NAACP, saying that she would make it impossible for them to get work, since soon there would be no more “jungle” or “plantation” parts left. Hattie McDaniel, who had been enormously successful playing stereotypical African American maids, sympathized with Horne’s position but would not support it; McDaniel argued that Horne was not realistic in her approach to working in a white person’s world.

When the Disney Studios released Song of the South Song of the South (Foster and Jackson) (1946), the film seemed to signal the demise of the “African Americans” as entertainers stereotype. A throwback to the extreme stereotypes of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Song of the South took place in the pastoral old South, with Hattie McDaniel providing the voice of the family mammy. Although the film made a profit, it was panned by both the white and black press and incited protests from black audiences.

Significance

Song of the South did not presage a return to the stereotypes of earlier films. The United States in the 1940’s had confronted fascism in Europe, and the nation was reminded by civil rights groups of the bigotry and racial inequality in American industries and in the armed forces. More forcefully than ever before, The United States was urged to right its old wrongs.

Sympathetic and real-life African American characters began to emerge on the scene alongside the 1940’s jazz musicals. In The Ox-Bow Incident Ox-Bow Incident, The (Wellman)[Ox Bow Incident] (1943), Leigh Whipper Whipper, Leigh portrayed a somber African American preacher who objected to the lynching of suspected cattle rustlers. In In This Our Life In This Our Life (Huston) (1942), Eric Anderson Anderson, Eric played an intelligent young law student arrested on hit-and-run charges. Anderson’s character was able to maintain his dignity and innocence until the guilty party, played by Bette Davis, stepped forward. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat Lifeboat (Hitchcock) (1944), a group of Americans confined to a battered lifeboat after their freighter is torpedoed symbolized the elements of American society. An intelligent African American steward (Canada Lee) Lee, Canada represented America’s second-class citizenry. Lee’s character was first greeted by Tallulah Bankhead as “Charcoal,” but when it was revealed he saved a white woman and child from drowning, he became “Joe.”

War films also began eschewing caricatured African American roles. The Negro Soldier Negro Soldier, The (Heisler) (1944) was an Army-orientation film produced by Frank Capra Capra, Frank and directed by Stuart Heisler Heisler, Stuart that was distributed to the public. Instead of a handkerchief-headed mammy, the film depicted a distinguished African American mother who was concerned about and proud of her G.I. son. The soldier, too, was not portrayed as a superstitious clown but as an intelligent African American recruit who qualified for officer training.

During this time of struggle abroad and at home, the stereotyped image of the African American began to crumble. Through the success of Stormy Weather and other big-band jazz musicals, Hollywood sought to elevate its servants and mammies to roles as entertainers. With their talents uncovered and with a change in the social climate, African Americans began to be offered more sympathetic, realistic, and positive roles. Following the war came further advancements, as African Americans pressed on to win other roles more in keeping with their status in and contributions to American life and culture. Stormy Weather (Stone) African Americans;performers African Americans;representations of Hollywood studio system;African Americans in Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans Labor;racial discrimination

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Donald. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. New York: One World Ballantine Books, 2005. A survey of the history of African Americans in Hollywood, from the 1910’s through the 1950’s. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 4th ed. New York: Continuum, 2001. Maps out a sixty-year span of the cinematic portrayal of African Americans, from a 1903 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the “blaxploitation” films of the early 1970’s. Also takes a look at black cinema abroad and compares it to Hollywood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckley, Gail Lumet. The Hornes: An American Family. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. This book, written by Lena Horne’s daughter, spans eight generations of the Hornes, a family that often served in the role of black ambassadors to white America. Filled with family pictures and memorabilia, this book takes a personal look at Lena Horne, framed in the light of a rich heritage and photographed through the eyes of her daughter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horne, Lena, and Richard Schickel. Lena. New York: Doubleday, 1965. An autobiography of Lena Horne, one of the principal stars of 1940’s musicals. Delves into Horne’s thirty years on Broadway, in films, in nightclubs, and on television and offers her strong opinions and fresh insights into other African American artists of her era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leab, Daniel. From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Chronicles the portrayal of African Americans in films from their earliest days up until 1974. Demonstrates how the African American actor has been stereotyped, from “Sambo” portrayals of African Americans as irresponsible, loyal, lazy, and humble through the sex-and-violence “blaxploitation” pictures of the 1970’s.

Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle

I Spy Debuts to Controversy

Carroll Becomes the First African American Woman to Star as a Non-domestic on Television

Categories: History Content