In an interview with the L.A. Times 20 years ago, Sidney Poitier, the first African American superstar and the first to win the lead actor Oscar (for 1963's "Lilies of the Field") discussed the extreme prejudice and hardships faced by African American performers in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
"The guys who were forerunners to me, like Canada Lee, Rex Ingram, Clarence Muse and women like Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers and Juanita Moore, they were terribly boxed in," Poitier said then. "They were maids and stable people and butlers, principally. But they, in some way, prepared ground for me."
Here are three pioneering African American actors who strove to break cinematic stereotypes, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. (In an irony, no minorities were nominated for major awards for this year's Oscars, which will be presented on Feb. 27during Black History Month):
Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967):
The exquisite singer-actress left her South Carolina home at 13 and moved to New York where she got a role in the popular Broadway revue, "Blackbirds of 1928." Director King Vidor saw her in the chorus and cast her in his 1929 film, "Hallelujah," the first all-black sound musical made by a major studio. McKinney stole the film as the seductress Chick, causing a sensation with her "Swanee Shuffle" dance.
MGM signed her to a five-year contract but didn't know what to do with the beautiful young black actress since most African American actresses were relegated to servant or "Mammy" parts. She appeared in only two films, 1931's "Safe in Hell" and 1935's "Reckless," though her scenes were cut and all that is left of her "performance" is supplying Jean Harlow's singing voice.
Like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker before her, she left for Europe where she was dubbed the "Black Garbo." When World War II broke out, she returned to the U.S., married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe, sang in clubs and made a few more films, most notably 1949's "Pinky. In the 1950s she moved to Athens, Ga., where she performed as the "Queen of the Night." She returned to New York in the late 1960s but didn't perform again. Her death of a heart attack in 1967 mostly went unnoticed.
Louise Beavers (1902-1962):
Just like most black actresses, Beavers found herself relegated to playing maids, servants and even slaves (in real life she had been a maid to actress Leatrice Joy). But she did get a chance to shine in a serious role in 1934's "Imitation of Life" with Claudette Colbert. In the melodrama, Beavers played Delilah Johnson, a housekeeper-cook whose employer (Colbert) transforms her into an Aunt Jemima-esque celebrity. But Delilah has problems with her light-skinned daughter who wants to pass for white. It was the first time in mainstream Hollywood cinema that the problems of an African American character were given as much heft as her white counterparts.
Sadly, "Imitation of Life," however, didn't improve the quality of her roles. Beavers may not have liked the parts she was given, but she remained one of the busiest black actresses in Hollywood, appearing in such films as 1942's "Holiday Inn" and 1948's "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." In the 1950 biopic "The Jackie Robinson Story," she gave a lovely performance as the baseball player's mother. She starred on TV in the 1950s sitcom "Beulah." She died of a heart attack in 1962.
Canada Lee (1907-1952):
When his boxing career ended in 1933 after a blow to his eye caused a detached retina, Lee turned to acting in 1934. His first major stage role was Orson Welles' 1936 "Voodoo Macbeth"; they reunited for Welles' 1941 stage production of Richard Wright's "Native Son."
Lee was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 thriller, "Lifeboat" as Joe, a torpedoed ship's steward. Lee gave a warm, passionate performance — he refused to speak in the "dialect" forced upon African American actors. He was even better in 1947's boxing classic "Body and Soul," as a boxer with a brain injury who is hired by the fighter who ended his career to be his trainer.
A vocal civil rights activist, he was a member of several left-wing groups and was labeled as a Communist during the Hollywood blacklist. Though he wouldn't name names in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he did call a news conference to say he wasn't a party member. Lee went to South Africa with Poitier to make the 1951 film, "Cry, the Beloved Country," but Hollywood still wouldn't hire him. In a letter to Walter White of the NAACP, Lee wrote "I can't take it anymore. I am going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theatre. My picture is playing to capacity audiences, and my God, I can't get a day's work."
The stress became too much for Lee, who suffered from high blood pressure. He died of a heart attack at the age of 45.