Monday, May 02, 2011

Best Black Film Actresses By Decade:1930s&40s

The 1930s and 40s are combined here as they represent a time when most Blacks who even managed to work as actors in Hollywood were uncredited and mostly worked as extras on screen. Those few who bursts through the racial barriers were truly bright stars, enjoying immense visibility and popularity with wider audiences and especially with the Black community. In the 1930s, most Black women who appeared on screen played maids. The first Black actress guaranteed dignified roles and winning a real contract with a major studio was Lena Horne, who signed with MGM in 1942.It was a major milestone in cinema history and in Black history. Outside of mainstream Hollywood, Oscar Mischeaux was a successful, independent Black filmmaker who spotlighted several Black actresses. Josephine Baker took her talents and went to France where she became one of the greatest superstars in the universe, admired around the world. With all of this in mind, here are the ten best actresses of the 1930s and 1940s.

1. Lena Horne

One of Hollywood's greatest icons, the legendary singer, dancer,Civil Rights activist, and actress, Lena Horne blazed the trail for Blacks in Hollywood when in 1942, she became the first Black actor to sign a contract with a major studio. Signing with MGM, she appeared in ten films during the 1940s. The most significant of these have all become classics, including, Panama Hattie,Cabin in the Sky, and Stormy Weather. The title song of Stormy Weather lent Lena her signature song, a song with which she would be identified for the rest of her life. Read a fuller biography of her here.

2. Ethel Waters

A star on Broadway and in Harlem during the 1920s, at one point the highest paid performer on stage, Ethel Waters earned the nickname of "Sweet Mama Stringbean," for her sultry and seductive persona and her performances in the theatre and on the concert stage. Establishing a career as a singer as well as an actress, Waters came into Hollywood already a star. During the 1940s, she appeared in six films, including the iconic Cabin in the Sky in 1943. In 1949, she starred in the epic race drama, Pinky.

3. Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney first became known as the seductress, Chick in the first all-Black musical, Hallelujah! in 1929. She remained a prominent actress throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, appearing in a string of films throughout the decades, including seven films during the 1940s. In 1949, she had a supporting role in the iconic race drama, Pinky starring Ethel Waters.

4. Ethel Moses

A popular Harlem star of the 1920s, Ethel Moses began her career as a dancer and a singer and as a chorus girl on Broadway. Moses rose to cinema fame as one of the leading ladies in the films of legendary Black filmmaker Oscar Mischeaux. With Mischeaux, Moses made several classic films, including Temptation in 1935, Underworld in 1937, God's Stepchildren in 1938, and Birthright in 1939.

5. Hattie MacDaniel

The legendary Hattie McDaniel will be known to history as the first Black person ever to win an Academy Award. After enjoying a steady career in Hollywood playing a domestic, in 1939, she won a part in the classic film, Gone With the Wind playing the part of Mammy. For her performance, she was awarded the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She later was heard in the iconic Amos and Andy and starred in the 1950s TV sitcom, Beulah.

6. Fredi Washington

A popular actress of the 1930s, Fredi Washington appeared in two iconic films during the decade, Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson in 1933 and Imitation of Life with Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert in 1934.

7. Josephine Baker

One of the world's first superstars, Josephine Baker got her start working Vaudeville and the chitlin and TOBA circuits around the country. By the time she was 15, she was on Broadway and starred in the iconic all-Black cast Broadway shows Shuffle Along in 1921 and Chocolate Dandies in 1924. Extended the opportunity to go to Paris and work, Josephine jumped at the opportunity, making her debut on the Paris stage in the classic La Revue Negre in 1925, appearing on stage wearing nothing but a string of feathers. She was an overnight sensation and proceeded to embark on a career that would land her as one of France's most treasured possessions and one of the world's greatest stars. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, Josephine Baker was the wealthiest Black woman in the world. She starred in ten films between the late 20s and the mid-fifties. Three of these became classics, Siren of the Tropics in 1927, Zou Zou in 1934, and Princess Tam Tam in 1935. After World War II, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for her role in the French Resistance. She received the Legion of Honour in 1961. Baker was also one of the leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. At her death in 1975, she was given a state burial in Paris with full military honors.

8. Alice B. Russell

The wife of the legendary and pioneering Black filmmaker, Oscar Mischeaux (Russell is the actress in red that appears in the picture above), Alice B. Russell appeared in eleven films between the late 20s and the late forties, often appearing as the stern and wise maternal figure. Russell also worked behind the scenes as director and producer.

9. Dorothy Van Engle

Dorothy Van Engle was a popular actress in the 1930s and 1940s, one of Oscar Mischeaux's leading ladies. She starred in four of Mischeux's most popular films during the 1930s, Harlem After Midnight in 1934, Murder in Harlem in 1935, Swing in 1938, and God's Stepchildren in 1938.

10.Louise Beavers

Louise Beavers enjoyed great popularity as an actress in the 1930s and 1940s, playing domestics in Hollywood films. One of the most constantly working Black actresses in Hollywood, she appeared in 133 films between 1930 and 1950. Her greatest role came in 1934 when she played Annie Johnson opposite Claudette Colbert in the original version of Imitation of Life.

Honorable Mentions:
Lucia Moses
Julia Moses
Hilda Simms
Hazel Scott
The 2000s

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Best Black Film Actresses By Decade:1950s

The 1950s saw a burst of Black talent in Hollywood and in the world of entertainment in general. Seeing the start of the Civil Rights Movement, most of the better opportunities open to Blacks were found on television. Hollywood made its concessions as well, however, and several Black actresses found their names etched across the American pathos. The following are the top ten Black actresses of the 1950s.

1. Dorothy Dandridge

The phenomenal Dorothy Dandridge was the brightest Black star in the universe during the 1950s. A successful actress and singer, with a major career in the nightclubs and supper clubs, her first notable role during the fifties came in 1953's Bright Road, a film that was heralded by the NAACP. On landing the title role in Otto Preminger's all Black 1954 classic, Carmen Jones, Dandridge was catapulted to instant celebrity and became, for a brief time, the highest paid actress, Black or white, in Hollywood. Her performance as Carmen Jones garnered her a 1954 Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. She was the first Black actress to be so honored. She had a score of other significant films after Carmen Jones, including Island in the Sun in 1957, Tamango in 1958, and Porgy and Bess in 1959. Her last major film in Hollywood was 1960's Malaga. Tragically, she died of a blood clot resulting from an injury in 1965.

2. Pearl Bailey

One of the most successful entertainers of all time, Pearl Bailey began her career as a successful Vaudeville and Broadway actress. By the 1950s, she had emerged in Hollywood as a popular actress and singer,landing the plum role of Frankie, the best friend, in the all Black 1954 classic Carmen Jones. She appeared in three more films that decade,including That Certain Feeling in 1956,St. Louis Blues in 1958,and Porgy and Bess in 1959.

3. Ethel Waters

The legendary Ethel Waters was already a superstar, famous as a Vaudeville and Broadway actress and as a blues singer by the 1950s. With decades behind her in the extent of her fame, in the fifties, Waters adopted the on-screen persona of the matron and saint-a huge contrast from the reputation she had earned as a sultry and seductive Black Venus during the 1920s. She appeared in four films during the decade, The Member of the Wedding in 1952,the all-Black film Carib Gold in 1957,The Heart is a Rebel in 1958, and Sound and the Fury in 1959.

4. Juanita Moore

Juanita Moore rose to instant fame in 1959 playing Annie Jane Johnson, the distraught Black mother of a biracial girl who passes for white in the classic remake, Imitation of Life. She appeared in twenty films during the 1950s, mostly with uncredited appearances. Her most significant roles during the decade include Affair in Trinidad, Witness to Murder,Women's Prison,Ransom! and The Girl Can't Help It.

5. Ruby Dee

A successful Broadway actress and an outspoken Civil Rights activist, Ruby Dee started off the 1950s playing the wife of Jackie Robinson, opposite Jackie Robinson himself, in his 1950 biopic, The Jackie Robinson Story. She appeared in eight more films that decade, including No Way Out in 1950, The Tall Target in 1951, Go Man Go in 1954, The Great American Pastime in 1956, Edge of the City in 1957, St. Louis Blues in 1958, Our Virgin Island in 1959, and the iconic Take A Giant Step in 1959.

6. Beah Richards

The formidable Beah Richards began her career in film during the 1950s. Her first significant role came in the iconic 1959 race drama, Take A Giant Step starring opposite Ruby Dee, Frederick O'Neal, and Johnny Nash.

7. Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott was one of the most prominent African Americans of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. One of the premier pianists of her time, she traveled the world playing classical and jazz music. Scott began appearing in films in the 1940s and by the 1950s was such a popular presence that she earned the distinction of becoming the first Black woman to host her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show, which aired in 1950. Her career waned soon after the start of her television show, however, as she was blacklisted because of her criticism of McCarthyism and her public defense of friends and colleagues who had been targeted by McCarthy and because of her Civil Rights activism. In the 1950s, she appeared in two films, A Bullet in the Gun Barrel and The Night Affair, both in 1958. In 1945, Scott married New York Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr with whom she had one child,Adam Clayton Powell III. They divorced in 1956.

8. Eartha Kitt

The sultry seductress, Eartha Kitt, who rose to fame in the 1940s in Paris, was one of the biggest stars in the world during the 1950s. Along with a successful recording career, Kitt made numerous appearances on American television during the 1940s and 1950s and appeared in three motion pictures during the decade, The Mark of the Hawk in 1957 and St. Louis Blues and Anna Lucasta in 1958.

9. Diahann Carroll

Diahann Carroll made her start as an entertainer in the 1950s when a friend sent her photograph to Ebony Magazine, which subsequently led to a modeling contract. In 1954, she made her Hollywood and Broadway debuts in the iconic all-Black film Carmen Jones and House of Flowers respectively. In 1959, she appeared in another iconic film with an all-Black cast, Porgy and Bess.

10. Louise Beavers

Louise Beavers had a steady and active career in the 1930s and 1940s playing domestics on screen. By the 1950s, she was a well-known and well-respected presence in Hollywood. In 1950, she appeared as the mother of Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story alongside Jackie Robinson and Ruby Dee.

Honorable Mentions:
Lena Horne
Carol Channing

The 1930s&40s