Rosa Parks & Black Hollywood

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott affected race relations in Hollywood, forcing movies, the media, television, radio and live entertainment to change how they portrayed black Americans and other Americans of color.
Rosa Parks in the 1940s
Rosa Parks in the 1940s
May 16, 2011 - PRLog -- Rosa Parks ushered in a new racial climate when she refused to give up her seat on the bus after work, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott and challenging Jim Crow laws that had relegated black people to subservient positions in society since the days of slavery. These same Jim Crow traditions consigned black actors in Hollywood films, traveling minstrel shows, theatrical productions, radio broadcasts and television programs to servants' roles, mirroring the lives African Americans were forced to live in pre-civil rights America.

Before the Civil Rights Movement, however, in real life, African Americans played far greater roles in society than their characters portrayed on screen, stage and airwaves. Black Americans wrote books, bought land, made music, practiced medicine and law, established schools, conducted scientific research, built communities, played sports, fought world wars, operated businesses and participated in every other aspect of American life.

Many instances of contributions by African Americans to the enrichment of mankind were deliberately concealed under a cloak of coded messages that became entangled, embedded and woven tightly into the very fabric of pre-civil rights American daily life.

Rising from this cloak of coded racial messages that came about during slavery, an entire legal system of black codes developed to 1) legally segregate the races, 2) degrade African Americans and 3) create moral separation in society. Easily perpetuated on live stages and later in movies and other forms of entertainment, black codes permeated the atmosphere of the Jim Crow South and other parts of the United States.

The first film coded with racial messages was D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, "The Birth of a Nation." Originally called “The Clansman,” the film, which premiered in Los Angeles, was based on a 1905 play by North Carolina Baptist minister, Thomas Dixon Jr. “The film was renamed “The Birth of a Nation,” premiered a second time in New York and later used as a recruitment tool to increase Ku Klux Klan membership nationwide.

Cinematically innovative, “The Birth of a Nation,” created a new style of camera use and storytelling on film. However, the controversial film depicted African American men in charge of a fictional, post-Civil War nation as murdering rapists aiming to defile white womanhood. From the point of the film's release, Hollywood's response to the Jim Crow South was to mold a docile, harmless, castrated character for African American men on film. This film treatment was similar to actual castration of male slaves who worked close to plantation families to prevent any sexual threat by a slave to females in those white households.

Early forms of plantation entertainment contained coded racial messages with constant references to Jim Crow, a minstrel character invented by a white actor in blackface, Thomas "Daddy" Rice. Based on a slave song, Jim Crow came to represent oppression and degredation of African Americans and the lifestyle to which they seemed to have been doomed. Evolving over time into Jim Crow laws, an institution that influenced every nuance of life, controled U.S. human and race relations for centuries. Laws meant to oppress slaves and former slaves after the Civil War also oppressed other people of color who were born or arrived within the borders of the United States. Outlandishly dressed, oafish portrayals entertained white audiences coast to coast from the1850s for more than a century until the Civil Rights Movement wiped Jim Crow from the books in the 1960s.

Jim Crow minstrel and vaudeville performances were loaded with racial coding and, as American entertainment evolved on stage and screen, racial coding followed, imprisoning white imagination in fantasies of black life. A good example of a Jim Crow character being transferred into Hollywood film is Stepin Fetchit, born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry in Florida in 1902. Perry invented the Stepin Fetchit character and performed it as part of a duo until the early 1920s, when Perry retained the name, Stepin Fetchit, and went solo to Hollywood with his subservient invention, landed a studio contract playing the easily frightened, goofy, slow-moving character, continued the character throughout his film career and developed a model for other black actors playing similar demeaning roles like his contemporary, Willie Best. who appears below with Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 "High Sierra."

Demeaning black female roles were perpetuated through the portrayal of nannies, cooks, maids and caretakers to white families and their children and elderly. Former minstrel and vaudeville performer, Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952), was one of the first black women to sing on radio. In 1934, she sang with Will Rogers in "Judge Priest," which became a Will Rogers movie. McDaniel played the maid. Although Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win a Best Supporting Academy Award ("Gone with the Wind" 1939), she won this Oscar for her role as the nanny, Mammy.

Rosa Parks was 21 when "Judge Priest" opened and 26 when "Gone with the Wind" opened. Part of a changing younger generation of black Americans, Parks could not help seeing 'white only' signs and negative images on stage and screen that reduced African Americans to cartoon-like stereotypes in absurd roles that kept white audiences roaring with laughter at ignorant, ridiculous, subservient displays loaded with racial codes depicting how black Americans were regarded at that time.

Born in 1913, Rosa Parks was a contemporary of Lena Horne, born in 1917. The two women, although similar in racial heritage and physical appearance, could not have had professions more different. Horne was a glamorous Hollywood movie star draped in luxurious gowns, jewels and furs; a recording artist; and a night club singer who earned thousands of dollars for appearances and performances. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was a trained seamstress in the position of assistant tailor at Montgomery Fair Department Store. She altered garments for $25 a week and, being black, was not likely considered for a head tailor's job.

However, under the surface, there are similarities between Lena Horne and Rosa Parks. While Horne was making movies in Hollywood, she objected to segregated studio dining facilities and to the demeaning roles. Her refusal to play maids and other servants was stipulated in her contract. Horne also protested when she was booked to perform in certain venues and was not allowed to enter those venues through the front door, eat in the restaurants in those venues or sleep in the hotel rooms of those venues. As her personal humiliations in the area of race relations in America grew, Horne used her status as a star to fight segregation throughout the nation.

As beautiful as any Hollywood star, Rosa Parks took a more direct route toward equality. During those same years that Lena Horne was making noise in Hollywood, Rosa Parks became a civil rights activist through the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading political and social organization at the time fighting oppression, violence and lynching in the United States. Parks became NAACP youth leader and was groomed to lead a protest that would change the nation--the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement in itself that lasted for more than a year.

To learn more about Rosa Parks, her impact on Hollywood and her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, read:
"Rosa Parks & Race Relations in Early Hollywood"
"Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott & Jim Crow"

© 2011 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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Sunny Nash is the author of "Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s," chosen by the Association of American University Presses as essential in understanding U.S. race relations, listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center in New York and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash has work in the African American National Biography by Harvard and Oxford; African American West, Century of Short Stories; Reflections in Black, History of Black Photographers 1840 - Present; Ancestry; Companion to Southern Literature; Texas Through Women’s Eyes; Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy; Southwestern American Literature Journal; The Source: guidebook to American genealogy; Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics; Ebony Magazine; Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places and others.

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