From Silents To Black Panther: ‘Hollywood Black’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Earlier this year, EPIX announced that they had greenlit a four-part docu-series based on Donald Bogle’s book, Hollywood Black, with Bogle as a consulting producer. While there haven’t been any updates on the series since, Bogle’s book can be in your hands today, so why wait when you can spend the whole summer tracking down all of the films Bogle mentions?

I still remember being advised by a professor in college to check out Bogle’s book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films for a paper I was writing. It’s one of the best recommendations I’ve ever received

To say Hollywood Black isn’t Bogle’s first rodeo is an understatement. On top of the books already mentioned, he’s also written numerous other titles, including bios on Dorothy Dandridge and Ethel Waters. Hollywood Black, then, feels like a culmination of all that research with a book that looks at the contributions of Black artists throughout the history of film. Starting with the silents and ending with Black Panther (Hollywood Black was released in 2019), each chapter focuses on a different decade.

My personal favorite is the chapter on the 1930s, which looks at actors like Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who were all often cast as servants because of Hollywood’s limited view of the kinds of roles minority actors could play. Their screen personas couldn’t have been more different, though, and it’s this awareness that Bogle helps sharpen by noting the distinctions in their performances and the small victories — in terms of opening minds and doors. Fetchit’s characters, especially, can prompt a strong reaction (Criterion Channel has a few of his films with director John Ford streaming now), yet there’s a fairness and objectivity to Bogle’s assessments that make readers look deeper, instead of away. It’s not about blind praise. Bogle raises criticisms, too, and points out when performances reinforce stereotypes, but just because a film like Gone with the Wind is flawed doesn’t mean Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for playing Mammy is any less historic or deserved.

Throughout the book, Bogle never misses a chance to draw a line between the past and the present day, whether it’s tracing the interracial, buddy cop movies of the ’80s back to Rochester’s relationship with Jack Benny on The Jack Benny Program or relating Richard Pryor’s career in the ’70s to Eddie Murphy’s career in the subsequent decade. You get to see which actors’ careers spanned decades (like Sidney Poitier’s and Denzel Washington’s) and which actors (like Fredi Washington and Nina Mae McKinney) had their movie careers hampered by small-mindedness. Bogle also touches on key directors, like Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles, and makes sure to devote time to independents and race movies as well as Hollywood pictures. Filled with glamorous photos of stars from Lena Horne to Theresa Harris, the only drawback to Hollywood Black is that the pages are the kind that show fingerprints.

Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers is available now from Running Press.

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