As February is Black History Month, every Wednesday this month we are looking back throughout history at some pioneers of black entertainment, Hollywood, pinup and burlesque. Last week we looked at historical figures of significance and today we set our sights onto Hollywood. Sharing a list of pioneers within Black Hollywood is such a monumental task that there’s no way it could all fit onto one post so I’ve decided to choose a wide range and save some for future posts. In a personal attempt to become a greater ally to black voices, I hope this mini-series inspires you to learn and share more about some forgotten figures from history.
Iconically known for her role in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Hattie McDaniel was an American actress, singer/songwriter and comedian who was the first African American to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress). She appeared in over 300 films (although only credited for 83), recorded 16 blues sides (only 10 issued) and was a radio performer and television star. She was also the first black woman to sing on the radio in the United States.
Oscar Michaeux was the first African American to produce a feature length film, ‘The Homesteader’ which came out in 1919, and a sound length film, ‘The Exile’ in 1931. Though the end products of his labors often were technically crude due to budgetary constraints, Micheaux the filmmaker is a symbol of the artist triumphing against great odds to bring his vision to the public while serving in the socially important role of critical spirit. “One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,” Micheaux said.
Dorothy Dandridge was an American actress, singer and dancer who went on to becoming the first African-American film star to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Camen Jones. In 1959, Dandridge was notated for a Golden Globe for ‘Porgy and Bess’.
Duke Ellington was a legendary American composer, pianist and leader of a jazz orchestra with a career spanning over more than six decades. Ellington earner an amazing 14 Grammy awards between 1959 and 2000 (3 of which were posthumous) and a total of 24 nominations. His first Grammy Hall of Fame Award was achieved with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it aint got that swing)” recorded in 1932 and inducted in 2008.
Eartha Kitt was an American singer, actress, dancer, voice actress, comedienne, activist, author and songwriter known for her iconic and mesmerising distinct singing style and her 1953 recording of “c’est si bon” and the Christmas tune, “Santa Baby” both of which reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Eartha Kittening won many awards for her film, television and stage work and was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 (6656 Hollywood Boulevard).
American singer, actor and athlete, Paul Robeson, was an outspoken political activist whose opinions nearly cost him his career. Paul Robeson was possibly best known for his leading role in the one time production of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. Robeson became an outspoken figure when he used his celebrity to advance human rights causes around the world. His push for social justice clashes with the repressive climate of the 50’s and he was blacklisted. He stopped performing, had his passport revoked and his songs were taken off the radio. He was quoted saying, “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery, I have made my choice. I had no alternative”.
Originally a dancer, Butterfly McQueen, was an American actress who first appeared onscreen in the 1939 film, ‘Gone With The Wind’. after being a film actress in the 40’s she eventually moved to tv acting in the 50’s and won a 1980 Daytime Emmy Award for her performance in the ABC Afterschool Special. She was quoted in saying, ” I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid”.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Once called “the greatest entertainer ever to grace a stage in these United States”, Samuel Davis Jr was an American singer, dancer, actor, comedian and vaudevillian artist. His popularity helped break the race barriers of the segregated entertainment industry despite some backlash from the African American community for his support of Nixon. He refused to perform or appear in any clubs that practiced racial segregation. He was the 1961 Man of the Year from the American Guild of Variety Artists.
Lena Horne was an American singer, dancer, actress and civil rights activist with a career spanning over seven decades. At the age of 16 she joined the chorus of the Cotton Club before becoming a nightclub performer and Hollywood actress and singer. She won several Grammy awards as well as awards for her civil rights acts, singing career and being nominated for an Emmy award.
Whilst creating this list, it was so difficult to keep the list short and concise and I know there are so many amazing artists that I haven’t included such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte. I hope to continue this list at a later date and share more stories with you all. If there is a specific artist you’d like me to cover in more detail or include in my next list, please let me know in the comment section below.
If you are interested in further reading, I’d highly recommend the following blogs and sources:
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