Headlines and Footlights
April 10, 1943
Last week PV's Joe Bostic queried our readers with the questions “Should Negroes accept “uncle tom” roles in the theatre and movies?” There were many interesting answers both pro and con, and as a result, Bostic turned his Headlines and Footlights over to me this week for my opinion on the subject—so here goes, and let the chips fly where they may.
Canada Lee answered with clarity one phase of the question, and that is the necessity for top-ranking artists to exercise their box office value by refusing any and all roles which cast reflection on the race. However Lee also said, and I disagree, that many times Negroes are forced to accept unsavory roles in order that they might eat. Herein lies one of the basic ills of the Negro in the world of make-believe.
GLAMOUR VERSUS A SQUARE MEAL
We have too readily accustomed ourselves to the glamour of the spotlight and the large paycheck (which by the way turns out to be a too small paycheck for the majority, over a period of 52 weeks) having in many instances but one or two theatre, nightclub or movie performances to our credit, we decide it’s show business for us, sink or swim.
This near-sighted conclusion blinds us to the many complicated evils which exist within the business, and softens us for exploitation. We, not one, but all, must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and realize the powerful medium of which we are a part, and strive to gain dignity and respect for ourselves.
There are many ways in which this can be done. We’ve heard a great deal lately about movie studios inviting Negroes to make suggestions on pictures in which they appear. This procedure has been in existence for many years, but unfortunately too few of us have exercised this right.
SUGGESTIONS WERE MADE
Before Imitation of Life went into production, I asked and received the privilege of making suggestions for changes, and as a result dialogue and situations were altered and the entire ending of the picture changed. When I went to Fox to make One Mile From Heaven with Bill Robinson, I found in that script, as is the usual case, objectionable material and again, I made suggestions which were carried out.
I have found in my experience that most script writers acquire their conception of Negroes from the writings of Octavus Roy Cohen, from a slight knowledge of night life as found on the Beale Sts., Central and Lenox Aves., of from what has been told them by the whites who are supposedly interested in Negroes and “know all about them.”
It is therefore our duty to enlighten and set straight any misconception of the Negro held by those who are entrusted with the responsibility of setting down portrayals of us. In all fairness to the directors and producers with whom I have worked, I should like to say I have always found them anxious to please in this respect.
SIGN WITHOUT READING
Another fault of the actor is signing contracts before seeing or reading a script, a practice found more in the movies than in the theatre. Under such an arrangement, an actor leaves himself little choice for editing the part he is to play.
Tiny Bradshaw, the bandleader, (who also answered last week’s question) believes it will take pressure groups to erradicate [sic] “uncle tom” portrayals, but it is my humble opinion that until those of us in the theatre realize the full impact and responsibility of our position as public and race-relations ambassadors (and we are just that—don’t forget the whites judge the entire Negro race by our performances both on and OFF the stage!) there is no pressure group in the country who can solve this problem or stamp out all of the evils hidden behind the scenes. Let us of the theatre learn the real and fundamental importance of our unique position and make it pay dividends.
BIG STARS HAVE THE POWER
I want to see the top-ranking stars leading the way and fighting every step of the war for a new deal for Negroes—Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Lena Horn[e], Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, Canada Lee. They have power, and if that power is used for the good of all and not themselves alone, it would go a long way toward eliminating the “uncle tom” parts, and yes, the “uncle toms” too.
All of you guys who can’t get a job in the theatre or can’t get anything but parts which cause you to sell your pride and birth-right—do what I’m doing; get a job outside the theatre. There are plenty of them now. Of course, you won’t be paid Equity minimum, but countless thousands, both black and white, are living on such salaries, and best of all, you’ll have your SELF-RESPECT. What’s more, the producers will sooner or later hear what’s happening, and just think what fun it would be to see a producer going frantic because he can’t find a Negro to do a nice, “big fat mammy” part!