From Bert Williams to Lauryn Hill the Black Triumph in Entertainment
Norment, Lynn, Ebony
AT the beginning of this century, real Black faces and themes were not common, to say the least, in the world of entertainment. Despite few opportunities, low wages and blatant racism, diligent Black performers began to emerge in the theater and music worlds. With verve and persistence, they laid the groundwork for successive generations of African-American singers, dancers, actors and comedians, as well as producers, directors, screenwriters and other behind-the-scenes professionals.
Considering the social and economic circumstances of the early 1900s, we now marvel at the African-American triumphs in entertainment and proudly count among our ranks some of the most gifted, most dazzling and most beautiful performers in the world. From early vaudevillian performer Bert Williams through the decades to the earthy star power of hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill, Black entertainers have weathered numerous trials and setbacks but also enjoyed many triumphs.
On the threshold of a new millennium, we proudly applaud the successes of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington, Cassandra Wilson and Wynton Marsalis, as well as the majestic artistry of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theater of Harlem. In addition, we praise the financial independence of creative entrepreneurs such as Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Bill Cosby and Sean (Puffy) Combs. Their successes ride on the hardships of Black entertainment pioneers such as filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, actors Clarence Muse, Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, singers Billy Eckstine and Lena Home, and musicmakers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.
During the infancy of the American film industry, Hollywood and Broadway, like the rest of America, were not friendly places for Blacks. Race riots that started in the late 1800s continued until 1906. Horrible productions such as the Clansman and early films such as Birth of a Nation set the tone--or reflected it. In literature, film and theater, Black characters were depicted (as a composite of stereotypes or) stereotypically as shiftless, lazy, fearful, garishly dressed, fond of gin and dice, and addicted to watermelon and fried chicken. The ominous racism of the South prevailed, with many in the media indiscriminately using negative terms when referring to Blacks. Films followed the lead of the minstrel shows, whose White performers blackened their faces with burnt-cork makeup in their burlesque routines of Blacks in the Old South. So ingrained were the negative images that when Blacks finally had a chance to perform, they found it necessary to adopt the minstrelsy tradition, including the burnt-cork makeup. Noted critic and poet James Weldon Johnson called this "a caricature of a caricature."
In early theater and films, Black characters did not have meaningful interaction with Whites, and most were relegated to servants, cowards, brutes and criminals. Even when Blacks were cast in roles that were more believable and meaningful, they were called upon to react to situations controlled by White characters, rather than to initiate action. When the Black character had a significant role, it was portrayed by a White person in blackface. After heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1910 beat Jim Jeffries, a White boxer who had held the title, a federal law was passed that prohibited "any film or other pictorial representation of any prize fight." Lawmakers moved quickly to make sure the image of a Black man beating a White man would not be transmitted to the masses. That same year, Blacks in Harlem protested a theatrical production that portrayed Blacks and was targeted at Blacks but was performed by an all-White cast.
Despite the stifling atmosphere, the talent and ingenuity of Blacks became apparent. Black theater groups began cropping up in Harlem and elsewhere. In the early 1920s, brothers Noble and George Johnson made several movies, and Oscar Micheaux started what was to become a prolific career as a filmmaker, lie made more than 20 silent features, including the semi-autobiographical The Homesteader (1919). …