Film Forum Asks, What Is the Experience of Black Women in Film

Film Forum’s latest series, “Black Women: Trailblazing African American Performers & Images, 1920-2001,” opening Friday, is an event. Not just something to mark on your calendar, but an event to line up for. Among the women featured here are Josephine Baker, Evelyn Preer, Pam Grier, Diahann Carroll and Janet Jackson.

It’s rare to see a film series of this size devoted to black actresses, many of whom — like Theresa Harris and Francine Everett — were underappreciated in their lifetimes, relegated to uncredited roles as maids and servants. (Though, interestingly, the Museum of Modern Art is about to host an eclectic series of its own, “It’s All in Me: Black Heroines,” from Feb. 20-March 5.)

With over 60 films and special events, including tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and the archivist Pearl Bowser, the Film Forum series has many themes. Maybe too many. But what is clear is that each work helps tell the history of black women in film and how they operated — both subversively and overtly — to tell their stories, even when scripts failed to flesh out their characters. To put the series in perspective, I spoke recently with the film historian Donald Bogle, author of books like “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films,” who programmed this wide-ranging series with Ina Archer, an experimental filmmaker and media preservationist.

While things are changing, black actresses and other actresses of color still struggle in a white, male-dominated industry (just look at this year’s Oscar nominees), fighting for some control over their roles. “We do have more women working now, more women in general, but these problems continue,” Bogle said in a recent phone interview. “Of all the stereotypes, the mammy figure is the one that America cherishes the most.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This is quite an extensive series: four weeks of films, covering 81 years.

Originally it was to be cut off at 2000. Then I said, “Well, no, Halle Berry’s Oscar comes from the 2001 film ‘Monster’s Ball.’” So it covers a lot of history.

Where did you begin? What did you just know you had to include?

Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones,” from 1954. Dandridge was the first African-American, male or female, to be Oscar-nominated in the leading role category. I felt that was significant. And her performance in it, she’s this very dynamic, assertive, independent woman who of course is punished for her independence and her assertiveness.

And then “Cabin in the Sky,” with Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. They’re of two different generations. Ethel Waters was one of my favorite actresses, but she was very, very difficult. She’s terrific in the film. There is the sort of nightclub sequence when she reclaims her sexuality to win back her husband. The thing about Ethel Waters in the film is that she’s — as in life at that point — an older black woman, she’s heavier, she was browner than Lena Horne. Yet she has this sexuality, which is very important.

I have to say with “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” those films are just rich cultural documents with great African-American performers, female and male, whose work might have been forgotten, or unacknowledged were it not for film. John Bubbles, for example, who plays Domino Johnson in “Cabin in the Sky,” he dances — and I mean what a dancer. He was the man that Fred Astaire apparently looked up to.

There are so many examples of that.

Nina Mae McKinney, who’s in the 1929 “Hallelujah,” she was really Hollywood’s first black love goddess. King Vidor [the film’s director] had seen the play “Blackbirds of 1928.” Nina Mae was in it. And King Vidor remembered her position in the chorus line [during an interview years later]. He said “third girl from the right.” After all those years, he just remembered how her talents jumped out at him off that stage. But McKinney does “Hallelujah,” and it is a performance that the executives at MGM all felt she had what it took to become a star. And it wasn’t going to happen.

Any more recent performances that stick with you?

Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Even Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard.” I think she’s just right as this pop star being threatened, and she has a kind of — you don’t doubt who she is in that. Because she’s able to bring her offscreen persona to the character.

That’s the other thing with some of these films — when we come to them and we know what happened to some of the women or what didn’t happen to them in terms of their careers. It becomes another kind of experience. It’s rather bittersweet when you’re just thinking of all the possibilities that were there in terms of talent, but not there in terms of what the industry was going to do.

Can you expand on that, and some of the themes you wanted to convey to viewers?

It is a kind of journey. In many cases, it’s not just playing a role, but playing against it — to send out covert messages about the way they saw things. In creating a character the actress also had to create a back story of her own — for the character that she’s playing.

One of the things I’m hoping people will go away with are these crucial moments where something else is happening onscreen that the director or the writer may not have been aware of when they were shooting. In the original 1934 “Imitation of Life,” with Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington, we have these two stereotypes — or archetypes. You have the mammy figure, this black woman who has a pancake recipe. And her white friend, who she gives it to, makes a fortune. The black woman’s daughter, played by Fredi Washington, a fair-skinned black actress, rejects her mother in order to pass as white.

I interviewed Fredi Washington many years later. What she felt about the character was not there in the script. The director, John Stahl, said he wasn’t going to make changes. But if that’s the way she felt about her character to play it that way. And that’s what she tried to do. And you get these moments with Beavers, the submissive black mother, and Washington, a tragic mulatto character who seems to be cursed by her drop of black blood. But you get moments with them of true intimacy and true connection, even though they’re at odds with one another. Each understands intuitively the other’s position, which the script is not stating.

It’s nice to see a number of black female directors like Julie Dash and Maya Angelou here. How do their works shift the narrative for black actresses?

And also Kasi Lemmons, who directed “Eve’s Bayou,” and “The Watermelon Woman” director, Cheryl Dunye, and Leslie Harris’s “Just Another Girl on the IRT,” a bit earlier. This is another perspective, with women behind the camera, telling the story. That’s the thing you always have to ask yourself when you’re watching a movie: Who is telling these stories, what are they telling me and what are they not? And in so many films, black women have had to fill in the hole in the script of what is not really being said. But with women directors you’re getting something else, a more complicated vision of dilemmas and situations confronting black women. Here I think that you see films that only women would have made — and their feelings for their characters and the kinds of decisions that their characters have to make.

Of the films here, which ones do you think might surprise viewers the most?

The surprises within the series might be things that were made for a mainstream audience but we see something else happening in them. I’m thinking of “Set It Off.” It does not have a female director but it has Queen Latifah. She goes all the way with that character, and what it is saying about her sexuality and how she feels. [She plays a lesbian in this 1996 heist movie.] She’s a marvel. I think there’s a generation now that will be surprised when they see it.

It’s Oscar season again, and, surprise, there’s not much diversity among the nominees. Actresses like Halle Berry and Hattie McDaniel have been criticized for the roles they won Oscars for, yet you included those films in the series.

With Halle Berry, “Monster’s Ball,” it wins her the Oscar. I think she’s very good in it but it still presents a certain problem that’s been in the movies and I don’t think we’re really free of today. It’s really a white man’s redemption movie. She is bringing about, in a sense, his attempt to rehabilitate. She is alone in that film, there was no real black community — because she’s lost her husband, has lost her son. But with all of the dilemmas that she has in that film, the question we always ask is, “Well, doesn’t she have friends or family that she might be able to reach out to”? She’s just isolated.

I think that she was deserving of the Oscar. But this is pointing out to us as black viewers our conflicting feelings when we see some of these films. And this goes way back where you’re excited to see a performer onscreen able to do something but you may also be completely distressed by certain aspects of these films and what they’re lacking.

The thing about Hattie McDaniel, I think that she really has some agency in her role [in “Gone With the Wind”]. You hear that voice, and it is a sonic boom. And you know that she was born not to take orders but to give them.

And her whole thing with Vivien Leigh — and other white co-stars — is that she’s not afraid of them. She doesn’t back off. When we see “Gone With the Wind,” again, we would like to know where does Mammy actually reside? Does she go to the slave quarters? Is there a room in this big house? What is her relationship with Prissy, played by Butterfly McQueen, or with Pork [another servant, played by Oscar Polk]? “Gone With the Wind” won’t tell us that. But she has something else within herself — that we know there has to be something else there. [Good] actresses will create a back story for their character.

Black Women: Trailblazing African American Performers & Images, 1920-2001

Jan. 17-Feb. 13 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, Manhattan;

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