Toni Morrison and Black Film Performers of the 1930s (Maggie Tarmey)
The Hollywood studio system had a near-monopoly on the film industry in the United States in the 1930s. While it is important to remember that “race films” (films starring predominantly Black casts and geared towards Black audiences) were in production at this time, they were marginal to the industry as a whole, and it is unclear how accessible they might have been for Black communities outside of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Most mainstream theaters would not screen these films, preferring to show mainstream Hollywood films, As a result, knowledge about this aspect of film history has been limited to scholars and those with a deep investment in Black cinema.
In the 1930s, white actors appeared in blackface less frequently than they had been in earlier decades, but of course, racism on the screen persisted. In mainstream Hollywood studio films in the 1930s, there were essentially five categories of Black stereotypes and controlling images that characters played by Black actors could fit into:
1. “The Black man colluding with white hegemony...known as the Uncle Tom”
2. “The Black woman colluding with white hegemony...known as the mammy”
3. “The ineffectual and lazy simpleton”
4. “A character of mixed race ancestry who was inevitably doomed...known as the ‘tragic mulatto’”
5. “The Black male as hypermasculine and dangerous” (Cited in Sharman)
In Hollywood studio films, you would be hard-pressed to find a Black actor portraying a character that did not fall into one of these harmful stereotypes.
Far and away, the most famous role by a Black actor in the 1930s was Hattie McDaniel’s role as “Mammy” in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. For this role, McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first Black person to win an Academy Award. It would take 24 years for another Black actor to be awarded an Academy Award, which would go to Sidney Poitier in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. If McDaniel’s character’s name didn’t already give it away, she portrayed a maid character that represented the “mammy” stereotype in Gone with the Wind. In the dozens of film credits McDaniel has, the vast majority of them are characters with no name other than “maid,” “servant,” “cook,”, etc. She has 98 acting credits on IMDB, and in only three of those roles did her character ever have a first and a last name. Even though she was perceived as a "good enough" actor to win an Academy Award, in her subsequent career she continued to be relegated playing stereotypical mammy characters. She always played second fiddle to the white leads, who were afforded the opportunity to play more well-rounded roles.
Bill Robinson, also known as Bojangles, was another important Black actor during the 1930s. The origin of his “Bojangles” nickname is disputed. Robinson is best known for his phenomenal tap dancing skills, which he typically had the opportunity to showcase in his film roles. He also became child star Shirley Temple’s dance coach, and taught her how to tap dance when she was seven years old. The two would go on to appear in four films together in the 1930s. His tap dancing in films was often done as entertainment for the amusement of white audiences, both within the screen and in front of the screen. With his film characters often existing for little more than entertainment purposes for white audiences, his roles would fall under the “Uncle Tom” stereotype.
One of the films that the two would appear in was 1935’s The Littlest Rebel. In this film, a young Shirley Temple celebrates her birthday on her family’s plantation in the American South in 1861, and Robinson, an enslaved person, tap dances for the guests at her party. The family’s plantation gets burned down by the Union army, and Temple’s father is imprisoned. To appeal his imprisonment, Temple and Robinson sing and dance in public spaces to try and raise money for their appeal. After raising enough funds, Temple gets to Washington and tells President Lincoln her story, and he pardons her father.
Linked below is a clip of Temple and Robinson’s fundraising activities. Robinson appears as affable as ever, and Temple is oh-so-charming. They perform for this majority (but not entirely!) white audience, where the men wear top hats and the women wear ornate dresses with many layers of petticoats. The singular Black audience member can be seen at the one minute mark in the linked video. He is dressed in significantly worse attire than the white audience members, and remains hunched over, staring at the ground. While the white audience looks amused, he looks almost dejected. Robinson’s act in this scene is clearly only for the enjoyment and entertainment of white onlookers, not for any sort of Black audience.
Robinson makes a brief appearance in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Early in the novel, Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola discuss Shirley Temple. The Bluest Eye takes place in 1940-1941, which was right around the peak of Shirley Temple’s child star fame. Claudia, in her internal monologue, has the following to say about Shirley Temple:
Frieda and [Pecola] had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it with me. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels. (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 19)
Bojangles would have been one of the few Black actors that Claudia would have known by name at this time. However, every time she would have seen him on the screen, he would likely be dancing with Shirley Temple instead of a young Black girl. While child stars may have been a “thing” in 1930s cinema, Black child stars were most certainly not a “thing.” Claudia would have never seen a girl her age that looked like her on the screen, and instead she would only see girls like Shirley Temple, who perfectly portray white beauty standards that were impossible for Claudia to meet. Not only would Claudia have seen scores of films where white men are only interested in white women, but now she has to watch as one of the only Black men in cinema at the time is enamored with this white girl instead of a Black girl. If white men only like white women, and Black men only like white women, what is left for the Black women?
If Claudia looked ahead to adult Black women, her prospects did not look much better. While older Black women at least existed on the screen (unlike young Black girls), even the most famous of them rarely, if ever, even had a name. Not only that, but they almost always played some form of domestic servant roles, which Claudia knew was likely the exact kind of job waiting for her when she got older. She knew plenty of adult Black women working in domestic servant positions, and she knew just how un-glamorous those jobs were. How good could life be for Black women if the only two options Claudia sees is to become a domestic worker, or to pretend to be a domestic worker and still probably be treated as such by the rest of the public? Claudia appears to have realized at an early age that life as a Black woman in the United States is a life destined for domestic service and being invisible.
Haskins, James. Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson. William Morrow, 1988.
Jackson, Carlton. Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel. Madison Books, 1993.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, 1970.
Sennwald, Andre. “THE SCREEN; Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson in ‘The Littlest Rebel,’ the Christmas Film at the Music Hall.” New York Times, 20 December 1935.
Sharman, Russell Leigh. Moving Pictures: An Introduction to Cinema. University of Arkansas, 2020.