The sure-footed rise of Will Smith’s career is one example of how a rough road has smoothed for black actors and film artists. The staggering odds against mainstream movie success stand equally for everyone, but a strong argument can be made that, in Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Glover, the Eddie Murphy of “Dream Girls” and the Jamie Foxx of “Ray” and “Collateral,” a solid number of African-Americans now occupy the top tier of American film actors, and even movie stars (the two aren’t always the same).
This is a far distance from an industry and culture that drove Josephine Baker and the titanic Paul Robeson into exile, kept the elegant Lena Horne onscreen only for the duration of a song, and made such a torment of Dorothy Dandridge’s life that she O.D.’d on antidepressants at age 42.
Al Jolson, the most popular American entertainer of his time, routinely made himself up in blackface to extend, well into the 20th century, the grotesque buffoonery of the 19th-century minstrel show.
Similar, if less egregious, caricature awaited the black actor when he wasn’t the invisible man (or woman). The maid, the factotum, the hall porter who took the white guy’s hat and coat or brushed off his jacket in a supper club men’s room — this was largely the black presence in Movietone white America. Stepin Fetchit parlayed a sho-’nuff shuffle into a small personal fortune, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson charmed the nation as Shirley Temple’s dance partner, but these, too, were caricatures.
How did it change? Who were some of the figures who made it possible for Smith to play a likable Bel-Air prince, comfortable in his skin?
Veteran film and music critic Dennis Hunt, who has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, considers James Edwards the first crossover black film star. After the Truman administration integrated the armed services in 1948, American audiences began to see race relations played out in the trenches, and in films like “Home of the Brave” (1949), “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “Bright Victory” (also in ’51), Edwards, who possessed movie-star good looks, delivered sensitive, low-key performances that caught the wary tenor of the time.
“He was a handsome guy and a good actor, the first one to break through,” says Hunt. “Something happened to him early on, and his career never really took off the way it should have. But without him, Sidney might never have happened.”
Hunt is referring, of course, to Sidney Poitier, who for nearly two decades stood tall as the principal boatman across the racial divide, beginning with 1950’s “No Way Out,” in which he played a black surgeon called on to treat the gunshot wounds of a white racist; and “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1951), the heart-breaking South African tale based on the Alan Paton novel about the murder of a white rancher’s son by a black boy. Canada Lee played a rural pastor who’s come to Johannesburg to find his guilty son; Poitier played an anguished young minister who tries to look after the old man, and, with Shakespearean lyricism, tells him, “If your pockets were filled with gold, your back were as wide as heaven, and your compassion reached down to hell itself, there is nothing you can do.”
Poitier had an explosive immediacy, as audiences saw in 1955’s landmark “Blackboard Jungle,” and a crisp blend of well-spoken alertness and shrewd reserve that earned him an actor Oscar, the first for a black man, in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.”
Other black actors did well in the ’50s, particularly Harry Belafonte, though his magnetism as a singer didn’t translate into his screen performances. It was a good period for liberal producers like Stanley Kramer and Otto Preminger, and “The Defiant Ones,” “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess” drew a lot of attention.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the black power movement brought a militant swagger that elbowed Poitier out of the way, though he made two of his most emblematic pictures, “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in 1967. By then, particularly among black males, he’d become too gentrified.
“Traditionally in Southern culture, the black maid or mammy could talk back to her mistress and even correct her, like Hattie McDaniel did in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” says Alvin Poussaint, the psychiatrist and co-author, with Bill Cosby, of “Come on People: On the Path From Victims to Victors.”
“That wasn’t true of the back male, unless he was an older Uncle Remus — a term of endearment whites gave to blacks,” says Poussaint. “But the young black male was kept down because of the fear of interracial marriage.”
Despite some ambitious movies like Melvin Van Peeble’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), racially timely ones like “Shaft” (also in ’71) and the rise of the blaxploitation genre, studly black actors like Richard Roundtree rarely made top dog in more than one film. There was one exception during that period.
Hunt recalls that Jim Brown, still considered the greatest running back in NFL history, had to leave during the filming of “The Dirty Dozen” in 1966 to make training camp with the Cleveland Browns. “It was then that he decided to quit and go into movies full time,” says Hunt. “His ‘100 Rifles’ was a big deal in 1969 because he made love to Raquel Welch. An interracial scene like that hadn’t been seen before.”
The interracial buddy movies like “Lethal Weapon” and “Beverly Hills Cop” offered greater black and white parity in the ’80s and beyond. But serious and affecting drama also opened up for black actors in films like “Glory,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Freeman got to play not only the U.S. president but God. Fishburne’s “Othello” was vastly more powerful and gripping than Laurence Olivier’s. Affirmative action and a changing demographic lessened the fear of interracial marriage (meaning sex), particularly among the young. It could be argued that black actors of the past decade or so have emerged as stronger moral figures; to audiences, they are both free of history but bearers of a historic racial memory over which they’ve triumphed.
In fact, Smith and his African-American contemporaries may be tapping into a tradition that’s rarely acknowledged but amply demonstrated by a majority of black cinematic characters who’ve been courageous and, under the veneer of racial anger and tension, heroically trustworthy, whether it’s Woody Strode in “The Professionals,” the Poitier of “The Defiant Ones,” who saves Tony Curtis’ worthless hide, or Washington of “Glory,” who picks up the tattered Union flag to march into certain death.
In any case, talent alone is never enough. Timing is just as important. Smith and Foxx (and Barack Obama) were born in the late ’60s and have benefitted from the Civil Rights movement without having to experience firsthand, or at least brutally, the heartache of its grievances. As a consequence, they don’t bring a lot of racial baggage into their performances.
If Poitier paved the way for Washington, Foxx, and subsequently Halle Berry, to win Oscars for lead roles, they were honored for playing more flawed characters than Poitier was able to get away with. But the acknowledgement was clear. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney; I’ll always be following in your footsteps,” Washington said as he accepted his Oscar for 2001’s “Training Day.”
Right now, Smith — who has two Oscar nominations of his own — is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood ($80 million for 2008) and, according to Forbes.com, the first actor in history to make eight straight movies that grossed $100 million or more each. USC professor of cinema studies Todd Boyd attributes a lot of that success to Smith’s selectivity in roles.
“Smith is an
action hero and a science-fiction star,” says Boyd in an email. “Had he decided to pursue more traditional dramatic roles, he might not have been as successful. Instead, he has become something akin to a black Schwarzenegger for the modern age.”
But Newsweek’s David Ansen sees more. “Traditionally you’ve had either the serious actors, like James Edwards, or comic actors like Richard Pryor,” Ansen says. “Smith is a little of both. He comes out of television, where all the real change comes from. People say Barack couldn’t happen without ‘The Cosby Show.’ TV helped Smith cross into the urban hero, the action hero and the comic hero. The real proof of his appeal was in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’ I can’t think of another actor who could’ve made that into a $100 million film.”
Poussaint cautions that black film success has not happened in a vacuum. He’s right. Was there ever a more raffish, engaging revolutionary than Muhammad Ali, who carried a torch not for an inner city but for the Olympic flame in Atlanta? “You have to remember how 1977’s TV series ‘Roots’ blew the country away and gave whites more insight into where blacks came from and what they went through,” says Poussaint. “When Quincy Jones saw what a success ‘The Cosby Show’ had been in the ’80s, he produced ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and it propelled Will Smith’s career. The movie ‘Crash’ really got to core issues. It helped people reach a new understanding of today’s society.
“I think of Nat King Cole. His TV show was canceled because advertisers wouldn’t buy into it. But his ‘Christmas Song’ is beloved. Every year it’s played all over the country. It’s amazing.”