The Film Forum in New York City has launched a series celebrating the artistic excellence of African-American women in film entitled “Black Women: Trailblazing African American Performers and Images, 1920-2001.” On opening day, they screened the classical musical CARMEN JONES, historically significant in Hollywood history for several reasons. For one, it features an all-black cast and is a modernized retelling of the Bizet opera CARMEN set in the American South. The film also also features the groundbreaking performance of Dorothy Dandridge, who became the first African-American ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for a leading role. She received the nomination in 1955, sixteen years after Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to ever win an Academy Award, being honored for her still controversial role as Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND.
Despite these accolades, Dandridge’s story is no fairy tale. She was a victim of the blatant racism of her era, possessing great talent and beauty, but still it wasn’t enough. She had a career as a leading actress in the Hollywood system, but only for a brief time. Her performance in CARMEN JONES is, by far, her most acclaimed performance. Upon viewing the film it’s easy to understand why. She is a revelation. In it, she plays a fearless woman who proudly defies the expectations of women at that time. She ridicules the idea of marriage and refuses to be subjugated to any man. This role is a radical departure from an industry that at that time presented female characters as virtuous, self-sacrificing, and easily malleable. The film was also produced at a time when black actors and actresses were rarely featured in leading roles and if they were cast at all it was usually as caretakers, maids, or in some type of subservient position to white folks. In that sense, the film itself is quite a revelation, a world where African-Americans have power and influence simply because there is not one white person depicted on-screen. Therefore, it is an imaginary world where racism doesn’t exist. Such a world could only exist in celluloid.
This classic film is worth viewing and stands as a testament to the vast and undeniable talent of the African American film community at that time. It is impossible to watch the performance of Dandridge and her co-stars and not wonder what may have been. The virulent racism as it existed at that time, both in Hollywood and the greater American society, prevented Dandridge and her black colleagues from enjoying a sustainable and enduring career in film. Despite the massive critical and box-office success of this film, Dandridge and other black performers continued to be denied opportunities that would have been available to them had they been white. Even while at the peak of her film career, she struggled to land leading roles despite her lauded performances with films PORGY AND BESS and ISLAND IN THE SUN. By the end of the 1950s, the offers dried up and in order to make a living, Dandridge performed in nightclubs which forced her to endure long periods of time on the road traveling to various locations. Despite her fame, she was forced to contend with Jim Crow laws that openly discriminated against African-Americans and prohibited her from staying at the very hotels where she was performing. There were stories that circulated that a hotel drained the water from the pool after Dandridge dipped her toe in the water.
Dandridge was also beset with problems in her personal life. By the early 1960s, she was forced into bankruptcy, divorced an abusive husband and committed her disabled daughter to a private hospital. Consequently, Dandridge fell into depression at a time when there were few options for treatment outside of medication. She died at the age of 42 under mysterious circumstances, her death eventually ruled an accidental drug overdose of antidepressants. Her tragic death at such a young age was at least partially caused by the neglect of an industry so rife with racism and prejudice that they had no idea what to do with the immense talent of a black woman who just one decade earlier had been nominated for an Academy Award.
Perhaps if Dandridge lived now she would have reached greater heights and been awarded the brilliant career she so richly deserved. Or perhaps not. African-Amercian actors and directors, both male and female, have made great strides in recent years, finally being featured in leading roles that showcase the rich talent of this underrepresented community. It’s a start, but greater diversity and structural change is still needed. THE ATLANTIC has a great article that cites a recently published book titled “The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry” which argues that the economics of the movie industry allows them to defend its racial biases: “Hollywood decision makers view movies with black casts as being economically risky…and for that reason they restrict them to small budgets.” Thus, people of color trying to forge a career in the industry find themselves relegated to smaller budget films and supporting roles. It’s also disheartening to consider all the great performances given by people of color that were overlooked for Academy Award nominations. Meaningful social progress is always slow, filled with disappointments and setbacks. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that this industry will continue to come around, realizing the smart economics and profits to be made that come from featuring people of color in stories that reflect their wide array of life experiences. For Dorothy Dandridge and the black talent of her generation, this comes far too late, but they bravely paved the way for others, and stand as a reminder of the devastating consequences of racism both in and outside the studio system of Hollywood.
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