We are all aware of the rather rocky road to super-stardom for black women in motion picture history. Segregated twofold – once by race, and again by gender – the path to Hollywood would certainly be an uphill battle.
When talented black actresses were finally allowed supporting roles in international blockbusters, they were often pigeonholed into racial stereotypes of that age. Filmmakers were unaware of their power to create and shape public opinion of certain minority groups, and underestimated their role in these common misconceptions.
The roles available to women of colour on the silver screen went through an evolution of extremes. First it was the maids, housekeepers, and servants of the black and white era, which then segued into the sexually flamboyant and immoral temptresses of later years. Independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux thankfully cast black women in middle class roles in the twenties and thirties, but this was still very much a minority practice at the time. Larger film studios would place black actresses in roles that were subordinate to their white co-stars. It is rumoured that Hattie McDaniel was not given the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind until she agreed to put on nearly one hundred pounds in order for Vivien Leigh to look more attractive in comparison.
Around the time of the Civil Rights Movement, things began to take a turn in the entertainment industry. Far more opportunities for African American women were available on screen, which was carried through to the 1970s and the creation of Blaxpoitation cinema. At this time, black directors were making hundreds of films each year, whilst black actors, both male and female, were gaining unprecedented visibility. Black women still faced adversities when vying for the lead roles in big budget productions, yet throughout the eighties and nineties, the playing field had begun to level.
While there is still a long way to go until we fully eliminate the prejudices of the past, today's film culture is fortunately leaps and bounds away from the times of segregated theatres and misrepresentative stock characters.
To celebrate Black History Month, we've taken a look back through film history, at some of the iconic women who made it all possible...
(November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965)
Starred in Porgy and Bess (1959) and Carmen Jones (1954), and was the first African American to be nominated for the academy award for best actress. Halle Berry starred in a biopic about her life. She has been recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
(January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008)
Originally a singer and cabaret star, Orson Welles once called her the "most exciting woman in the world." Famous for playing Catwoman in the Batman TV series (1967-8), her film roles credits include Mark of the Hawk (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958), and The Emperor's New Groove (2000).
(May 26, 1949 – Present)
Star of the Blaxpoitation era, Grier starred in 1974's Foxy Brown. She has also been nominated for a SAG, as well as a Satellite Award, for her performance in the iconic film Jackie Brown (1997), which prompted director Tarantino to label her as 'cinema's first female action star'.
(June 10, 1895 – October 25, 1952)
Hattie was the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award. She won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). Appearing in over 300 films, not all of which were credited, she was honoured with a US postage stamp.
(June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010)
This actress, singer, dancer, and civil rights activist had a busy career. She starred in The Wiz (1978), Ziegfield Follies (1945), Stormy Weather (1943), and Cabin in the Sky (1943). Due to her political views, Horne was eventually blacklisted from Hollywood.
Words by Dale Barnett.