Lena Horne and the campaign against film stereotypes in the 1940s

Lena Horne at Committee for Unity in Motion Pictures reception in 1944
Rex Ingram, Jesse Graves, Lena Horne, Ben Carter, and Dooley Wilson at a 1944 reception hosted by the Committee for Unity In Motion Pictures. From the Afro-American, August 5, 1944.

Lena Horne died yesterday at age 92.  Most obituaries, as well as President Obama’s statement, mention her activism both outside and within the movie industry.  The lede of Richard Corliss’s obit at Time also highlights the barriers she confronted by offering a pointed counterfactual Horne filmography with MGM: White CargoPinkyShow Boat–all roles that actually went to white actresses, despite the long-term contract she won in 1942.

As I’ve learned while researching my dissertation and reading film historian Thomas Cripps’s pathbreaking Making Movies Black, Horne was both symbolically and personally central in the intense struggle African Americans waged during World War II to transform how they were depicted on film.  NAACP executive secretary Walter White was a friend–Horne grew up in a middle-class, activist family in New York–and he encouraged her movie career, seeing her as a talent who could break from the “comic and menial” screen roles he abhorred.  (Shortly after the war, White also sought to tap Horne’s uncle, Frank, a poet and New Deal “race adviser,” to head the NAACP bureau he wanted to establish in Hollywood.)  And to some black actors who had carved out a place in the film capital, often by playing such roles, and who were already suspicious of White’s tendency to meet with white executives, producers, and stars on his Hollywood jaunts while ignoring them, Horne seemed further evidence of a takeover by outsiders from the East.

But these actors were not necessarily content with the status quo, and friendship with White aside, Horne was active in organized, actor-initiated campaigns to change depictions of African Americans in the movies–campaigns that competed, to a degree, with the NAACP’s work.  She was an early supporter of the left-leaning Committee for Unity in Motion Pictures and its successor, the Interracial Film and Radio Guild, which enlisted figures like White antagonist Clarence Muse.  She later served on the IFRG’s board, which earned her a mention in the FBI’s reports on communists in the industry.  The CUMP’s and IFRG’s primary activities were several gala awards ceremonies in the mid-1940s, where black and liberal white industry figures fused progressive rhetoric of wartime interracialism and unity with Hollywood glamour, while toasting one another for “contributing … to the advancement of colored players in motion pictures.”  Horne was named “outstanding colored actress of the year” in May 1944, an honor celebrated again a few months later at the reception for the press depicted above.

Horne was later active in traditional civil rights politics in the 1960s.  And in the realm of culture, her personal refusal to play maids and servants at MGM, or even her emotional Sesame Street performance of “Bein’ Green” (video below), were arguably more consequential in changing American racial attitudes.  Still, Horne had a key role at a moment in the early 1940s when the long civil rights movement and the politics of culture converged, and it’s one that, as we remember her, shouldn’t be forgotten.

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