Early breakthroughs (1919-55)

The key early black American independent filmmaker was the Illinois-born Oscar Micheaux, who founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City in Chicago. Its first project was the production of his own novel, The Homesteader, as a feature film in 1919. His follow-up, the extraordinary Within Our Gates (1920) was an impassioned response to D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Micheaux went on to produce and direct a host of innovative silents and, later, talkies, on his own terms. He was in the minority in that he owned his own production company (most were owned by white entrepreneurs who used unionised white technicians), but there was nevertheless a number of black directors, producers and screenwriters operating in this era. Other important figures included actor-director Spencer Williams (whose jaw-dropping 1941 film The Blood of Jesus is one of the great ‘race’ movies about religion) and William Alexander, who would become a key producer.

Early Black Cinema Stars

Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Ruby Dandridge (née Ruby Jean Butler), an entertainer, and Cyril H. Dandridge, a cabinet maker and minister. Under the prodding of her mother, Dorothy and her sister Vivian Dandridge began performing publicly, usually in black Baptist churches throughout the country. Her mother would often join her daughters on stage. As the depression worsened, Dorothy and her family picked up and moved to Los Angeles where they had hopes of finding better work, perhaps in film. Her first film was in the Marx Brothers comedy, A Day at the Races (1937). It was only a bit part but Dandridge hoped it would blossom into something better. She did not appear in another film until 1940 in Four Shall Die (1940). Her next few roles in the early 1940s included films such as Bahama Passage (1941), Drums of the Congo (1942) and Hit Parade of 1943 (1943).

There were others in between, the usual black stereotypical films. Not only was she a talented actress but could also sing, which was evident in films such as Atlantic City (1944) and Pillow to Post (1945). This helped to showcase her talents as a singer and brought her headline acts in the nation’s finest hotel nightclubs in New York, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas. She may have been allowed to sing in these fine hotels but, because of racism, she couldn’t have a room in any of them. It was reported that one hotel drained its swimming pool to keep her from enjoying that amenity. In 1954, she appeared in the all-black production of Carmen Jones (1954) in the title role. She was so superb in that picture that she garnered an Academy Award nomination but lost to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl (1954)). Despite the nomination, she did not get another movie role until Tamango (1958), an Italian film. She would make six more films, including, most notably, Island in the Sun (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1959) were worthy of mention. The last movie in which she would ever appear was The Murder Men (1961) (1961).

Dandridge faded quickly after that, due to an ill-considered marriage to Jack Denison (her first husband was Harold Nicholas), poor investments, financial woes, and alcoholism. She was found dead in her West Hollywood apartment on September 8, 1965, aged 42, from barbiturates poisioning.

Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an American singer and actress. Waters frequently performed jazz, swing, and pop music on the Broadway stage and in concerts, but she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Waters notable recordings include “Dinah”, “Stormy Weather”, “Taking a Chance on Love”, “Heat Wave”, “Supper Time”, “Am I Blue?”, “Cabin in the Sky”, “I’m Coming Virginia”, and her version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”. Waters was the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was the first African-American to star on her own television show and the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.

This handsome, eloquent and highly charismatic actor became one of the foremost interpreters of Eugene O’Neill’s plays and one of the most treasured names in song during the first half of the twentieth century. Paul Robeson also courted disdain and public controversy for most of his career as a staunch Cold War-era advocate for human rights. While the backlash of his civil rights activities and left-wing ideology left him embittered and practically ruined his career, he remains today a durable symbol of racial pride and consciousness.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson and his four siblings (William, Benjamin, Reeve, Marian) lost their mother, a schoolteacher, in a fire while quite young (Paul was only six). Paul’s father, a humble Presbyterian minister and former slave, raised the family singlehandedly and the young, impressionable boy grew up singing spirituals in his father’s church. Paul was a natural athlete and the tall (6’3″), strapping high school fullback had no trouble earning a scholarship to prestigious Rutgers University in 1915 at age 17 — becoming only the third member of his race to be admitted at the time. He excelled in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field, graduating as a four-letter man. He was also the holder of a Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year and was a selected member of their honorary society, Cap and Skull. Moreover, he was the class valedictorian and in his speech was already preaching idealism.

Paul subsequently played professional football to earn money while attending Columbia University’s law school, and also took part in amateur dramatics. During this time he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode in 1921. She eventually became his personal assistant. Despite the fact that he was admitted to the New York bar, Paul’s future as an actor was destined and he never did practice law. His wife persuaded him to play a role in “Simon the Cyrenian” at the Harlem YMCA in 1921. This was followed by his Broadway debut the following year in the short-lived play “Taboo”, a drama set in Africa, which also went to London. As a result, he was asked to join the Provincetown Players, a Greenwich Village theater group that included in its membership playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill personally asked Paul to star in his plays “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and “The Emperor Jones” in 1924. The reaction from both critics and audiences alike was electrifying…an actor was born.

In 1925 Paul delivered his first singing recital and also made his film debut starring in Body and Soul (1925), a rather murky melodrama that nevertheless was ahead of its time in its depictions of black characters. Although Robeson played a scurrilous, corrupt clergyman who takes advantage of his own people, his dynamic personality managed to shine through. Radio and recordings helped spread his name across foreign waters. His resonant bass was a major highlight in the London production of “Show Boat” particularly with his powerful rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” He remained in London to play the role of Shakespeare’s “Othello” in 1930 (at the time no U.S. company would hire him), and was again significant in a highly controversial production. Paul caused a slight stir by co-starring opposite a white actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who played Desdemona.
Around this time Paul starred in the landmark British film Borderline (1930), a silent film that dealt strongly with racial themes, and then returned to the stage in the O’Neill play “The Hairy Ape” in 1931. The following year he appeared in a Broadway revival of “Show Boat” again as Joe. In the same production, the noted chanteuse Helen Morgan repeated her original 1927 performance as the half-caste role of Julie, but the white actress Tess Gardella played the role of Queenie in her customary blackface opposite Robeson.

Robeson spent most of his time singing and performing in England throughout the 1930s. He also was given the opportunity to recapture two of his greatest stage successes on film: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Show Boat (1936). In Britain he continued to film sporadically with Sanders of the River (1935), Song of Freedom (1936), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), Dark Sands (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940) in important roles that resisted demeaning stereotypes.

During the 1930s he also gravitated strongly towards economics and politics with a burgeoning interest in social activism. In 1934 he made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union and outwardly extolled the Russian way of life and their lack of racial bias. He was a popular figure in Wales where he became personally involved in their civil rights affairs, notably the Welsh miners. Developing a marked leftist ideology, he continued to criticize the blatant discrimination he found so prevalent in America.

The 1940s was a mixture of performance triumphs and poignant, political upheavals. While his title run in the musical drama “John Henry” (1940), was short-lived, he earned widespread acclaim for his Broadway “Othello” in 1943 opposite José Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona. By this time, however, Robeson was being reviled by much of white America for his outspoken civil rights speeches against segregation and lynchings, particularly in the South. A founder of the Progressive Party, an independent political party, his outdoor concerts sometimes ignited violence and he was now a full-blown target for “Red Menace” agitators. In 1946 he denied under oath being a member of the Communist Party, but steadfastly refused to refute the accusations under subsequent probes. As a result, his passport was withdrawn and he became engaged in legal battles for nearly a decade in order to retrieve it. Adding fuel to the fire was his only son’s (Paul Jr.) marriage to a white woman in 1949 and his being awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952 (he was unable to receive it until 1958 when his passport was returned to him).

Essentially blacklisted, tainted press statements continued to hound him. He began performing less and less in America. Despite his growing scorn towards America, he never gave up his American citizenship although the anguish of it all led to a couple of suicide attempts, nervous breakdowns and a dependency on drugs. Europe was a different story. The people continued to hold him in high regard as an artist/concertist above reproach. He had a command of about 20 languages and wound up giving his last acting performance in “Othello” on foreign shores — at Stratford-on-Avon in 1959.

While still performing in the 1960s, his health suddenly took a turn for the worse and he finally returned to the United States in 1963. His poet/wife Eslanda Robeson died of cancer two years later. Paul remained in poor health for pretty much the rest of his life. His last years were spent in Harlem in near-total isolation, denying all interviews and public correspondence, although he was honored for speaking out against apartheid in South Africa in 1978.

Paul died at age 77 of complications from a stroke. Among his many honors: he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995; he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998; was honored with a postage stamp during the “Black Heritage” series; and both a Cultural Center at Penn State University and a high school in Brooklyn bear his name. In 1995 his autobiography “Here I Stand” was published in England in 1958; his son, Paul Robeson Jr., also chronicled a book about his father, “Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey” in 2001.