From Sugar Hill to the Hollywood Hills

Author Donald Bogle has shed more light on those black shadows on the silver screen than any other film or TV historian. In his books Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks and Prime Time Blues: African Americans on Network Television, Bogle explores Tinseltown's celluloid stereotypes and representations of blacks, from The Birth of a Nation to Mantan Moreland to Blaxploitation to The Cosby Show and beyond. In his new book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, Bogle takes a look behind the screen at Los Angeles' African-American film colony, from 1915 to the 1950s, examining the West Coast's "Harlem-wood." Bogle, who teaches seminars about African-American moving images at the University of Pennsylvania and N.Y.U.'s Tisch School of the Arts, was recently in Los Angeles, reading at L.A.'s premier black bookstore, Eso Won, and at Book Soup. There Bogle presented slide shows on Bright Boulevards stars, including Our Gang's Farina and Buckwheat, Jack Benny's sidekick Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, and the first black Best Actress Oscar nominee, Dorothy Dandridge (whose biography Bogle penned).

Ed Rampell: What is Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams about?

Donald Bogle: This is a departure for me. In my previous books, I looked at onscreen images of African Americans in the movies and on television. With this book, I look at the way African Americans in Hollywood lived, sometimes the way they functioned at the studios, the community in which they lived, changes that came about for African Americans in Hollywood, how they related personally, as well as professionally, to the larger film industry. Just in a sense to recapture some of the vitality of the black film community itself in past decades, to chart the changes.

What decades do you cover?

The story of black Hollywood really begins in the teens of the 20th century, just when the film industry in Hollywood was starting. The studios moved in gradually. Early filmmakers like DeMille and Griffith who came here [sic]. Early on, there were African Americans who worked in the industry and struggled to get in. The beginnings of black Hollywood can be found with a woman who called herself [laughs] Madame Sul-Te-Wan. Of course, it wasn't her real name. She came here, had children, a husband, had been an entertainer and was from Kentucky. Not long after she got here, her husband left her and she had to find work. She ended up becoming friends with D. W. Griffith and working on The Birth of a Nation, [she was] friendly with him for decades. She started by cleaning dressing rooms, taking care of wardrobe, then getting bit parts in the movie. In Birth of a Nation, the major black characters are played by whites in blackface. But you do see some African Americans in smaller parts and Madame apparently did several parts.

Birth of a Nation premiered in L.A. on Feb. 8, 1915, 90 years ago. How do you feel about Birth?

Well, frankly I think it's a film that if anyone wants to see it, they should be able to see it. It should be put into a certain context for people. As incredible as it may sound, some people think Birth of a Nation is really history. It has historical elements – this whole thing about Reconstruction is from Griffith's very, very distorted point of view and his fears of black men pursuing white women. You do want some critical comment on it when Birth of a Nation is shown. I don't think it should open up next week at a cineplex without something being said about this film historically and its distortions. Today, when some audiences see it, they're still shocked by parts of it. When you see that legislative session, the black men eating the chicken and leering at white women, taking their shoes off and putting their feet up – you can't quite believe it. Because it's just so wrong and so obvious – the racism that's there. We're accustomed to racism in more subtle forms.

When they were making it, I don't think most people had any idea what all this was going to look like when it was put together. When it was released, people were shocked, certainly progressive people, and there were protests and The California Eagle, the black L.A. newspaper, really crusaded against it and wanted people to know early on the power film had as racist propaganda.

How do you define "Black Hollywood"?

When I first started writing about African Americans in the movies, I didn't have a really full sense of Black Hollywood as a place that's both mythic and real. Over the years, I began to discover new things. Three people really opened doors for me. An early one was Fredi Washington, who appeared in the original Imitation of Life (1934). She was an East Coast actress who talked to me about her experiences when she came here. Vivian Dandridge, Dorothy's sister, talked to me about the nightclubs and so forth. Geri Branton, the first wife of Fayard Nicholas, of the Nicholas Brothers, was the one – when I was researching my Dorothy Dandridge book – who really articulated better than anyone I'd spoken to previously what Central Avenue was like. Because Central Avenue was the great thoroughfare, deep in the center of this black community. Central Avenue was known for nightclubs, shops, restaurants and the Dunbar Hotel.

African Americans were really not free to live wherever they wanted to in L.A. There were restrictive covenants that prevented homes from being sold to people of color. There was the East Side where blacks lived, and part of the West Side, and they kept moving further west. So, it's a real community that people had.

[It's] not at all like today with the new Black Hollywood – which is not really, in terms of an area, enclosed. Today, people like Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, just about live and go wherever they want. L.A. did not have the signs "For colored, for whites," the way you'd find in the South. Everyone I interviewed from that earlier period said it was very clear that you were supposed to be able go wherever you wanted, but they knew there were places where there could be problems. So there was this separate community. All sorts of things sprang up – after-hours clubs, where people would mix and mingle. So there was a great camaraderie among the actors and actresses. A different type from what we have today.

You write about how the public personas of Black Hollywood's old stars differed from their private selves.

Stepin Fetchit can be very difficult to take when you see him with Will Rogers in [1934's] Judge Priest. When you see him in the 1929 black-cast musical Hearts of Dixie ... or late in his career, in the [1948] race picture Miracle in Harlem – when you see him relating to other black people, he really is funny. Because you don't feel that he's cooning it up and doing the servile bit for some white person. In the first sequence in Judge Priest he's in a courtroom and they're trying him for being a chicken thief. He's asleep and inarticulate. It irritates you – why can't he speak up for himself, and why don't they let him? But the director [John Ford] can't even come in for a close-up to show us... what he feels inside. So Fetchit just has his character withdraw from the world around him. He knows he only has so much screen time, and he really controls the scenes in terms of the pacing and rhythm. Today, when you see him in the white films, where he is the servile figure, slow moving and so inarticulate – when Fetchit becomes a star in the late '20s and '30s, for a time, he's it, he represents black America. That's not the kind of representative the community ultimately wanted ... The postwar generation saw him and was really horrified.

Offscreen he wasn't servile at all. Offscreen he lived high – he had his mansions, cars, women. He dressed beautifully. He had 16 Asian servants. When Fetchit went around town there'd be three cars – in the center was Fetchit in his pink Rolls Royce.

Louise Beavers played domestics – was she a servant offscreen?

[Laughs] In the 1934 film Imitation of Life, Louise Beavers plays Aunt Delilah, the lady with the magic pancake recipe ... She played Cary Grant's maid Gussie in 1948's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Louise Beavers knocks me out. She was heavyset, brown-skinned, played these asexual mammies in the movies and she was nothing like this offscreen! She ended up living in Sugar Hill, this exclusive area for African Americans in L.A. She couldn't cook, hated cooking ... liked a good card game and smoked. And she had her husbands.

Hattie McDaniel was another one who played these mammy parts, and she had several husbands. These women were always on the lookout for a new guy in their lives ... Lena Horne said that McDaniel told her, 'Onscreen, yes, I'm a mammy. And I'm a good mammy onscreen. But in my house, I'm Hattie McDaniel.' The great thing about Hattie McDaniel, there's always a hostile edge – you can see it in Gone With the Wind... [Mammy] sees through Scarlet O'Hara and knows she's no lady. And Rhett Butler really wants her respect ... She's got that big sonic boom of a voice, and when Hattie McDaniel speaks, you know this is a woman who was born to give orders – not take them.

Can you expand on how 21st century Black Hollywood differs from the eras covered in Bright Boulevards?

I do think there is a Black Hollywood today. Among the big stars in the industry there's an awareness that racial lines in Hollywood – some have gone down, but there's still distinctions there. And that Hollywood's really not the free and open place people would like to think it is. It's changed a great deal – but in some ways, it hasn't. The new Black Hollywood, socializing does go on in their homes; it's not in any particular part of town. Some stars don't speak publicly about the problems. But privately you'll often hear people talk about things that go on still in the studios.

There was a recent incident – Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, was fired from the production [of American Gangster, with Denzel Washington]; they said he was going over budget. Another director was brought in; then, they dropped the movie altogether. My feeling is that Denzel Washington is a major box office star who has opened number one movies. Why would you just drop plans for a movie with this kind of star? I really don't think this would have happened with Tom Cruise. There still are these differences.

Today, we still don't really see black women – it's tough for all women – who've attained the kind of success that Denzel, Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman attained. These are men who command multi-million dollar salaries and can open movies and keep working. Halle Berry won the Oscar; Catwoman was a disaster; but what will happen with that career? She's just done a TV movie with Oprah Winfrey, Their Eyes Were Watching God. What is she offered?

What happened to Angela Bassett after What's Love Got to Do With It? She did Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, but you know Angela Bassett, when you really look at her, at her presence onscreen, I think she really has movie star weight ... like Joan Crawford. She overworks the eyes and mouth on occasion like Crawford, but she's really got that very, very strong presence. In another kind of system, she might have become one of the grand movie stars. And that hasn't happened – now she's doing Alias on television. Alfre Woodard's another one who's been around for years and who was nominated for a Supporting Oscar for [1983's] Cross Creek. There are different levels you feel certain people should be able to attain if the system supports them. And I don't think she's had that kind of superstar success. Nothing against her talent – but the system. It's difficult for all women; for African American women it still remains very, very difficult.

Why is it such a big deal when black performers receive Oscar nominations?

Fellini once said that in the mythology of the cinema, the Oscar is the ultimate. The Oscar puts someone just in a whole other class or realm. It's the highest award that a performer in American movies can get. It's great recognition from the industry itself, and there have been so few African-American Oscar winners. When you look at the Oscars' long history, it's quite interesting that relatively early on, Hattie McDaniel did win Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind. But after she won in '39, it was 10 years before any other black actor got a nomination, and that was Ethel Waters for Best Supporting Actress for Pinky in 1949. There was a Special Oscar given to James Baskett [as Uncle Remus] for [Disney's 1946] Song of the South. But the nominations mean quite a bit.

With the Oscar nominations this year, it's historic, we have these five African-American nominations; we've never had that many in the acting categories. The most we've had have been three – in '72, Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were up for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues. With [1985's] The Color Purple we had three nominations [Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery]. We also had three nominations the year Halle and Denzel won – Will Smith was up for Ali, and Sidney Poitier got the Special Oscar.

Nonetheless, [this year] we have five – Jamie Foxx has two nominations [for Ray and Collateral], and that is historic in another way, I think there's only one actor before who's gotten two nominations in the same year for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, Al Pacino. Morgan Freeman is up [for Million Dollar Baby]; Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo [for Hotel Rwanda].

So we got those five, and that's great. I'd like to see more African-American directors or screenwriters getting nominations. It's interesting that in '72, also nominated for screenplay from another source was black writer Lonne Elder III, who did Sounder. Also up for screenplay was the script for Lady Sings the Blues; one of its writers was Suzanne De Passe, an African-American woman who'd worked at Motown. So we got into other areas. But we haven't many of those kinds of nominations. Spike Lee was nominated for the Do the Right Thing screenplay, and his [1997 documentary] 4 Little Girls, but he's never gotten a nomination for Best Director of a feature. Certainly, with Malcolm X, he should have. So we still have that, and I want to see the system open up so we do get more nominations in the other categories.

I'd really also like to see more black-themed, black-cast, black-oriented movies made. I don't think we're seeing as many as we did a few years ago. Black directors like F. Gary Gray, who directed The Italian Job and the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool with John Travolta – this is great that he can direct any kind of film. But I do wonder if he wanted to direct a black film, what kind of problems he might have run into. The whole history of Ray – Taylor Hackford had to work to get a studio behind it and get it produced. Taylor Hackford did have a track record. If that had been a black director, Ray might still be sitting on the shelf. The industry still has some of these old attitudes; it has changed, in some respects it has not changed enough.

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