There were many Black beauties throughout the golden era of Hollywood (1930s-1960s), however Hollywood had strict racial codes that restricted opportunities for Black actresses and entertainers. Many Black actresses and entertainers were restricted to stereotypical roles, such as the mammy or Jezebel.
Black actresses, such as Dorothy Dandridge, who starred in Carmen Jones, and Hattie McDaniel, who received an academy award for portraying Mammy in Gone with the Wind, both had limited opportunities in Hollywood.
The limited opportunities led some to write and produce all Black films, such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. These films gave opportunities for work to Black actors, but they also adhered to some of the stereotypes that were and continue to be prevalent in Hollywood.
It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that Black people would produce more films, starring Black people. The Blaxpoitation era would usher in a host of opportunities for Black actors.
Classic Black Actresses:
From 1922-1945, Hollywood adhered to Hays Code or the Motion Picture Production code, which provided “moral guidelines,” that films were expected to adhere to. For example, it was forbidden to show race mixing in film, however some films defied these codes, such as the Imitation of Life. The Imitation of Life(1934) tells the story of a light-skinned (mixed-race) Black woman who tries to pass as white. Although Imitation of Life endorses both the tragic mulatto and mammy stereotype, it was considered incredibly progressive for its’ time. The movie was remade in the 1950s.
Many of these Black actresses and entertainers never had their chance to shine on film because of stereotypes. In the present day, in some ways things have gotten better for Black people in Hollywood, but in many other ways they have not. The mammy, jezebel and sapphire stereotypes are still very prevalent in Hollywood and Black actors still tend to only receive accolades for portraying stereotypes, such as Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball and Denzel Washington in Training Day.
Do you like to watch classic black films? What is your favorite?