Even though the campaign to change the negative image of Black People as portrayed in the movies continued just as it had from the beginning of Hollywood by 1942 Walter White the executive director of the NAACP decided he needed to take a more direct approach to the problem.
No doubt progress had been made. No one could argue that things were the same as before. Since D.W. Griffith’s tribute to Southern aristocracy and domestic terrorism also known as The Birth of a Nation had debuted in 1915, civic leaders and activists had mobilized to rewrite that wrong and in the process change the cinematic imagery of African-Americans for the better.
Considering the starting point it’s fair to say they had their work cut out for them. It must be noted that DW Griffith did not create these stereotypes but Nation was such a powerful and well-done film that he burned the imagery of marauding Blacks deep into the American psyche. Not just pillagers but also mulattos who just can’t get enough of those white women or the happy darkies that pined for the days of slavery.
In the confrontations that followed the film’s release the NAACP along with other organizations did have a modicum of success. The movie was banned in a number of cities or cut drastically. Yet more often than not their efforts had the opposite effect. A curious public clamored to see the movie even more. Birth of a Nation did not go away. Instead it became the first blockbuster in motion picture history.
And herein lied the problem. Griffith was a symptom of a much deeper reality. Stopping him or at least blunting the effects of his film did not change the fact that the whole of society bought into the imagery which dated back to before minstrel shows. Hollywood filmmakers not named Griffith weren’t going to stop exploiting that stereotype.
So for a little over thirty years the battle raged on. There were a few minor victories along the way. The advent of pre-code may have been the best period for Black Actors up to that time. In some instances African-Americans were portrayed as people. Even when they were made to be servants there was a nice twist to it as the movies of Mae West illustrated.
Yet for every step forward there were two hundred steps back. Lincoln Perry was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood for a time but his character of Stepin Fetchit with his shiftless, bug-eyed, lazy ways was the very essence of negative stereotype.
Even high points like Hattie McDaniel winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar came with a mixed bag. No doubt the Black Community as a whole were happy for this milestone but at what price? McDaniel won for playing Mammy in David O Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Mammy. The word says it all.
McDaniel herself was a brilliant performer possessed with a wonderful singing voice, dancing ability and timing. She was a pro’s pro. That no one could dispute. If Hollywood wanted her to play maids then so be it. As McDaniel famously stated “I could play a maid for 700 dollars a week or be one for 7 dollars a week.” Reality let her know early on that her choices like for most Blacks in America were limited.
Walter White didn’t necessarily object to Black Actors and Actresses playing servants. He understood many in the Black community had at one time or another worked as maids, butlers and whatever else kind of domestic service. What White objected to was Hollywood’s refusal to see African-Americans in any other type of role as well as the willful and systematic depiction of Black People in the most demeaning way possible. Some of it was subtle. Most of it was not.
With this in mind Walter White ventured West. His plan was to schmooze with Hollywood execs in order to begin the dialogue that would eventually lead to change. Of course the moguls had seen this movie before and had their own plans which included ducking White altogether or counter-schmoozing him to the point that the whole thing would be forgotten as soon as White set foot on the plane headed back to New York.
But the NAACP director was not one to be easily dissuaded because of a lavish luncheon or meeting the latest box office draw. He pressed ahead with his plans to put pressure on filmmakers to do the right thing. If he had to step on a few toes then that was just too bad.
The toes in this case belonged to long time Black screen actors who resented interference from this East Coast no nothing. In their opinion White’s gambit as well as his refusal to meet with them (initially) was an open slap in the face to people who were working diligently from within the studio system to change how Blacks were portrayed.
What also hurt was White’s perceived promotion of a young entertainer regarded as his protégé who would become the pin up girl for Black Soldiers during World War II: Lena Horne. The contrast between her and the typical Black Female on celluloid could not have been more striking.
From his vantage point White viewed these people as only concerned about their own livelihood. They could care less about the rest of Black America as long as they continued to get paid. He was derided for this by many in Black Hollywood as you would expect but a quote from Hattie McDaniel at that time spoke volumes and unintentionally showed White was right on target.
As the fray was reaching a fever pitch McDaniel told one of the leading Black Newspapers the Pittsburgh Courier, “It takes time and I don’t believe that we will gain by rushing or attempting to force studios to do anything they are not readily inclined to do.”
African-Americans knew that refrain all too well. Every time they attempted to move forward a spokesman for white supremacy would come out with some variation of McDaniel’s statement. Indeed they invented that statement and were using it at that time to justify discrimination and violence.
In many ways by mimicking the voice of the oppressors, McDaniel and her fellow Black Actors proved Walter White’s case for him. They were desperate to hold on to what they had regardless of how it affected Black America.
No doubt every last one of them could relay stories of personal trials and tribulations they had to go through. But that wasn’t Walter White’s point. Just about every African-American had a story to tell of overcoming or was in the midst of battling some form of discrimination. Indeed during World War Two, Black G.I’s were fighting the Axis powers and the harsh racism from white soldiers and the U.S. military establishment.
His point was these actors were well compensated for demeaning their own people. The claim of trying to change the system from within was bogus because nary a one had lifted a finger to do anything until Walter White had made it an issue.
He also knew that even if people like McDaniel were well meaning they were nowhere near the levers of power. Their input aside from possibly individual scenes in individual films meant nothing. If you are going to change anything White understood you have to go where the action is.
But more than anything McDaniel and her co-workers were blind when it came to Black America as a whole. Their efforts to help out Black soldiers and sailors did not give them a free pass to continue playing roles that the Black Community was never happy about before but now rejected in full force.
Chalk it up to being in the Hollywood cocoon too long, pride, refusal to admit the obvious or just plain fear but the era of Mammy and Stepin Fetchit was drawing to a close. And while people like Hattie McDaniel would continue her personal albeit losing war against the NAACP director (often using highly charged racial language referring to White’s fair complexion) the bottom line is a profound one. Walter White was completely in tune with what Black America wanted and they wanted change. He got it right while Hattie McDaniel and too many others in Black Hollywood got it horribly wrong.