African American Actresses in their 50s

Classic Hollywood: Remembering pioneering African American actors  February 22, 2015 – 11:30 pm
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Nina Mae McKinney, Louise Beavers and Canada Lee paved the way for African American actors.

Sidney Poitier, left, and Canada Lee Zolton Korda's 1951 film, "Cry… (London Films, London Films )

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. 27 during Black History Month).

Nina Mae McKinney (1912 or 1913 to 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.


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