Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Out of the Shadows

Black Women in Film, 1900-1959


Jacqueline Williams


Leicestershire, UK: Matador Press (Troubadour Publishing), 2012

Paperback. vi + 83 p. ISBN 978-1848767904. £10.99


Reviewed by Thomas G. Cole, II

University of Florida



Jacqueline Williams presents a unique reflection on the history of black women—and also men—in the film industry during the early to mid twentieth century. Her book is organized into seven fast-paced chapters where the reader does not feel overloaded by too much information. Her learned explication of black women in film demonstrates a careful focus on offering a history of black film not often told. Whereas other notable scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins in Black Sexual Politics or bell hooks in Reel to Real : Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, have discussed in great detail and with marvelous precision the way in which Western, patriarchal cinema has positioned black women in film, Williams builds upon those discussions and acutely homes in on the early developments that led to the widespread Mammy and Jezebel figures of Gone With the Wind, the so-called race movies, and blaxploitation.

Williams’ stated purpose is “to focus attention on films made by African Americans ... on the narrative of films and their treatment of black women ... to chronicle the degree to which African Americans themselves were able to initiate and compose a genuine reflection of themselves in motion pictures, independent of Hollywood standards” [3]. But before she provides those discussions, Williams historicizes the early twentieth century in relation not only to film but in relation to what would eventually be called the black community. In her second chapter on the “New Negro,” Williams illustrates the beginnings of a twentieth-century class consciousness for black artists. Coming out of Victorian constraints of the late nineteenth century, many intellectuals, black and white, focused on art and literature as means for social uplift and progress. However, with the ever-strengthening Jim Crow laws of the American South, many African Americans moved northward in record numbers during the first few decades of the twentieth century [9]. With such a massive migration, intellectuals and regular citizens of both races had to work in cities with many more differences than before.

Between 1917 and 1919, as Williams evinces, violent, deadly clashes between blacks and whites occurred over labor opportunities as well as equal treatment after the First World War [15]. Also, black intellectuals were at odds with what to do for better rights. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, charged some black male leaders, whom she called the “Niggeratti,” with being too quick to “embrace white bourgeois values” [15]. Others like Marcus Garvey were so fed up with white America that they wanted “a separate existence”  [16]. In this tumultuous climate where some black intellectuals argued for assimilation due to residual patriotism left over from African American involvement in the First World War while others wanted nothing to do with white America, the opposing forces of “anti-Garveyites and assimilationists ... tackled the issue of racism as the single problem that affected black women” in film [18]. As a result, there was a move away from the “Mammy and Jezebel” figures “to wife and mother,” a move that was “respectable, albeit Victorian ... to counter the myth that all women of color had loose sexual morals and ... placed black family units on screen for the first time” [18].

The same divisions in black society also occurred in the earliest black film endeavors. Williams points to two important founding figures of the black film industry. The first was Bill Foster, also known as Juli Jones, who established the first black film company in 1910 [19]. Not only a film producer but also a director, writer, and actor, Foster created films that fell more in line with the assimilationist camp, for he “presented more realistic portraits of black people and depicted characters who occupied a range of social and economic backgrounds” [20]. Such films were often interested in melodrama and confirming the widely held assumption that blacks could aspire to be like whites [22]. The second important figure Williams spends time historicizing and praising was Oscar Micheaux. While some of his early films were produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (the company most dedicated to black melodramas), Micheaux focused many of his films on examinations of such important issues as the “down side of urbanisation,” poverty, lynchings, domestic abuse, interracial relationships, and even skin privilege [24]. Micheaux even went as far as to link anti-Semitism and racism as “the most violent expressions of racial hatred” [25]. His films specifically dealt with casting black women, usually light-skinned women, as leading actresses that opposed the stereotype of the “tragic mulatto” [28]. For example, his films The Homesteader (1917) and Within Our Gates (1919) concentrated on interracial love. Within Our Gates, one of his most controversial films, which was immediately banned after its premiere, “challenged all the stereotypes that were made universally acceptable in the film The Birth of a Nation” [24]. More often that not however, Micheaux continued to place light-skinned black people in higher-class positions, thereby reifying a hierarchized “talented tenth” [17].

Light-skinned black women were often treated with more respect and given more access to jobs in general and roles in film in particular. Lena Horne, the first well-known and successful black film actress, was notably light-skinned. Her success came from her ability to sing, a legitimate place for black women of the early twentieth century, i.e., jazz venues, according to Williams. Unlike other jazz singers of the time, Horne was able to cross the color line, leaving behind dark-skinned women. These color lines were promulgated not simply by white Americans but also sustained by some black men, like Micheaux.

Because men—whether black or white—still governed society and the film industry, women had to combat stereotyping in a myriad of ways. For example, while black film directors introduced “an audience with a picture of a black woman as a loving wife, mother, girlfriend or daughter [which] was groundbreaking because it did not exist in the Hollywood film genre,” African American women already did exist in these real-world roles in their own right [33]. Thus, these “groundbreaking” images, in fact, hampered black women who wanted liberation from such Victorian ideals of the mother and wife. Black female writers descried the “sanctioned dogma” of Du Bois’ “New Negro” because it hinged on the assumption that everyone was “gendered male” [31].

In the last few chapters of her book, William takes up the issue of black women more directly; much of her book focuses implicitly on women by discussing men’s roles explicitly. Since black actresses were at the mercy of the patriarchal film industry, most black actresses received roles as the tragic mulatto: either the servile Mammy or the sexually available Jezebel. In both cases, Williams argues, these roles allowed white Americans “to play out their ambiguities about race” [43]. In the 1910s, not only was a major portion of Hollywood controlled by Southern men, e.g., Steve Lynch of Paramount and Edward Kendall of the Motion Producers Association [43], but other cities in America demanded the same from black women: in 1899 Isabel Eaton published her study on black women’s roles in the city of Philadelphia, and “all but nine percent ... were employed as domestics” [46]. In a famous example wherein fiction crosses into reality, Williams notes that Mae West’s on-screen maid, Louise Beavers, was also her actual maid [44-7]. Thus, women had limited roles in film because they had limited roles in society.

In her final chapter, Williams turns to three famous black actresses of the early and mid twentieth century: Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, and Dorothy Dandridge. Williams first wants to put McDaniel in context. Though McDaniel played, arguably, the most famous Mammy figure in the history of film, she was a black woman who championed the rights of the oppressed. Williams writes, “It is ironic that McDaniel, who was criticised for playing servile roles, should campaign so vigorously for change” [62]. McDaniel, who was not only disparaged by African American elites of the time but also by later critics as well, really exposed the fact that, though she wanted to play in better roles, there was a glass ceiling in film owing to the “apartheid nature of American society” [61]. Though Hollywood relegated McDaniel to the position of the happy servant, McDaniel pushed back. As Williams notes, McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939) was comical but did not act “inferior” to Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett—indeed, Mammy often “ridiculed” Scarlett [64]. While McDaniel felt she played the roles she could get, Williams tells her readers that McDaniel hoped that Lena Horne would move beyond the roles of the “menial” [66].

With the support of the likes of McDaniel and Eddie Anderson as well as the NAACP, the Freed Film Unit, and MGM studios, Horne embarked on a charge to “establish a new kind of image for black women” [68]. Often enough though, some of her alliances got her into hot water. Her friendship with Paul Robeson, for instance, got her banned from radio and screen in the 1950s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities [68]. Despite Horne’s ease in making connections with individuals and organizations, MGM still put her in roles that would cause little repercussions. Frequently, she was filmed without her white cast members so that distributors could extricate her scenes with little effort if they felt “their audiences would object to seeing a black woman” [73]. Like Horne, Dorothy Dandridge was a young singer who, early in childhood, only performed before mixed or black audiences. During her film career, Dandridge, like Horne, received much criticism but still tried to combat the “racism and sexism within the film industry affecting her life and prospects” [80]. Despite being the first African American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for Carmen Jones (1954), it would still take decades longer for a black woman to earn the award outright. As Williams rightly asserts, “While a lineal interpretation of American film history would easily propose that Hollywood ... over time became more liberal and concerned with ... civil rights, in reality more humane and diverse depictions of black women did not emerge .... From the 1900’s through the 1950’s African American women were depicted as servile people” [41-2]. It would not be until 2001 that Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball.

While Williams’ book brings up great discussions of early black cinema, the monograph should not be used alone as an authoritative text. There are frequent errors: from the less major comma splice to the more major inaccuracy of historical figures. For example, in chapter three, Williams writes that Kenneth Spencer, in lieu of Dooley Wilson, was cast in Casablanca (1942) as the infamous Sam, the piano man—though the back cover of the book asks, “Did you know that before Dooley Wilson was cast ... in ... Casablanca, Lena Horne was considered for the part?” With careful reading however, scholars, students, and interested people alike can glean adroit analysis and history from Out of the Shadows: Black Women in Film, 1900-1959. Jacqueline Williams continues discussions regarding depictions of black figures that have been irking or intriguing cultural-, film-, and black studies scholars for the past few decades.


Cercles © 2012

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.