To Sidney a Trailblazer, With Love

In 1964, the same year the Beatles forever changed our world, a dark-skinned actor from the Bahamas changed our perception of what a leading man could look like.

Sidney Poitier, a man as swoon-worthy as Paul Newman, with the charm of Cary Grant, as principled as Gregory Peck, was the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor.

Sidney Poitier and Obamam

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier at the White House on August 12, 2009, to the trailblazing actor and Civil Rights activist.

This graceful man with great humanity broke long-held racial barriers not only in film but in society. This immigrant teen emerged from poverty, joined the U.S Army during WWII despite being underage, worked as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons, and became a trailblazing actor and civil rights, activist.

No Blacks Need Apply

As white as the film industry remains today, it is still a far cry from the not-so-distant past when Hollywood had no place for African American’s in film except as one-dimensional shuffling buffoons and obedient servants.

Even as moving pictures evolved from black and white to color, the movie industry was slow to follow suit. For most of my childhood, variety was in short supply. Howard Johnsons might have had 28 flavors of ice cream and Baskin Robbins 31, but when it came to movie stars, the only choice in Hollywood was one.

Vanilla.

Black artists and entertainers faced facing discrimination in the entertainment industry as a whole.

Heck, to even see a Hollywood movie, most African-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century couldn’t even see a first-run film except from a balcony or at an after hour “midnight rambles” when films were shown to African-Americans after midnight in white movie theaters where under Jim crow laws they would never have been admitted at any other times.

Even as Sidney Poitier catapulted us forward, it is worth taking a look back at the world he came from and the one he would leave behind.

When Sidney Poitier was born in 1927, the Jim Crow laws were in full force.

 

Racist signs Jim Crow

Jim Crow racist sign from Grand Theater in Birmingham Alabama

Dreaming in the Darkness: a Dark Part of our History

Americans flocked to the movies in record numbers during the first part of the 20th century. Going to the movies was an escape…for some.

Jim Crow in his many draconian roles as segregation enforcer also wore the hat of a movie critic who determined the experience of and access to movies. It was a time in America of the big sleep.

Jim Crow determined the experience of and access to movies. It was a time in America of the big sleep.

If there was no place for Blacks at the movies, they created their own.

Black Theaters

Black Movies Temptation Harlem on the Prairie

Oscar Micheaux was known as the King of Black Film Makers. His 1936 movie “Temptation” touted Ethel Moses the star of the film as the “Negro Harlow.” (R) When Herb Jeffries donned a ten gallon hat in 1937’s “Harlem on the Prairie” the singing cowboy became a real movie star appearing in 4 movies. Image Source: “A Separate Cinema” by John Kisch

Once upon a time, there were hundreds of “colored” movie theaters across the country, offering safe havens of comfort and entertainment to African-Americans.

It was a chance to watch a movie without being reminded of Jim Crow realities

Unlike white movie theaters, entrances and seating were not restricted by race. And unlike a white theater where the only blacks were the porters and maids, here the manager, tickets takers, ushers, and concessionaires were all black.

Yes, Negro Theaters were less grand and operated in specifically defined and constrained neighborhoods . They were generally not air conditioned at a time when air cooled movies would lure customers in with their big sign  announcing in shimmering blue  icicle lettering “It’s Kool Inside.”

Black movie theaters were usually considered last run possibilities for major Hollywood studio movies. Bogie and Bacall usually took a year to make their way into black theaters and some prestige film never made it at all.

But there were the “race movies” and there was no shortage of them.

A Great Colored Cast

Movies Chicago After Dark gang Smashers PicMonkey Collage

(R) Chicago After Dark 1946 (L) “Gang Smashers” was a 1938 Million Dollar Pictures starring Nina Mae McKinney as a tough talkin’ dame who runs Harlem’s underworld rackets. Image Sources: A Separate Cinema by John Kisch

If there was no place for Blacks in the movies they made a place for themselves and created  their own.

Black audience movies also called “race movies” with all black casts were made in the first half of the 20th century and distributed to all black cinemas.

It gave new meaning to the term Film Noir.

These movies produced away from the big Hollywood movie studios flourished, offering genres ranging from melodrama, musical, and comedies.

Black Movies Ebony on Parade Life Goes On

(L) “Ebony on Parade” 1947. An all-star compilation of Black stars- Cab Calloway, Count Basie, The Mills Brothers, and a young Dorothy Dandridge. (R) ” Life Goes On ( His Harlem Wife )” 1938 courtroom drama starring Louise Beaver. The talented actress was probably best known to white audiences as TV’s Beulah, the star of the 1950s sitcom where she was known as “queen of the kitchen” playing a more stereotypical mammy character. Image Sources: “A Separate Cinema” by John Kisch

Unlike mainstream Hollywood movies that invariably offered demeaning stereotypes of African-Americans these low-budget black films produced by black writers, producers, and directors between 1916 and 1950, gave African-Americans a chance to play leading roles, while showing positive portrayals of Blacks.

In the safety of these  Black Theaters, Africa Americans could do their own dreaming in the dark without the dark history that often accompanied them to the movies.

 

Copyright (©) 2022 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

 

 

2 comments

  1. Sally, he ranks right up there with the best of American actors. “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “To Sir with Love” are must sees. Well done. Keith

    Like

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