by Nadine Matthews | Shadow and Act
Donald Bogle is America’s foremost Black film historian.
The University of Pennsylvania and New York University professor has authored six books on the subject of the Black presence and image on the big screen. His first book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films was released in 1973. This year, he’s published Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers, celebrating Black icons through the years. Bogle has also produced several documentary series for television, including Brown Sugar: Over One Hundred Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, a four hour, four-part series for PBS, and an extensive project with Turner Classic Movies. Bogle, an HBCU alumnus of Lincoln University who fell in love with movies as a kid while growing up with chronic illness in Philadelphia, continues to be the definitive voice on Black actors and filmmakers, through all of Hollywood’s transitions.
As he’s documented in his work, Black people have been part of the film industry since its origins–hot on the heels of the Civil War and the dawn of Jim Crow–but did not start flourishing on screen until the late twentieth century. The plethora of projects featuring Black actors and the addition of stories that more honestly and comprehensively communicate the Black Diasporic experience are evidence of progress but also reveal stubborn fissures both outside the Black community as well as within it.
Shadow And Act caught up with the noted historian to discuss on-screen colorism, white saviors and the current state of Black Hollywood.
“Colorism is still there [on screen],” Bogle told Shadow And Act.“We can’t deny it. I refer to it as the color caste system and it exists more so with African-American women than men where they’re divided into color categories–the nurturing mammy-like figures, etc.”
Aware that lighter-skinned Black actresses also face racism and sexism in Hollywood, Bogle was careful to point out that the fault is systemic. “I want to make sure I point out,” he said, “that this isn’t a criticism of the actresses, but of the system. Actresses like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne had their struggles. They didn’t create the problem, but we do want to keep it in mind and be alert about it.”
As a professor and scholar, the intention of Bogle’s work is to provide the necessary analysis so that members of the filmmaking community will all be cognizant of these systemic issues and can help enact necessary change. He also highlights the filmmakers who have been doing this work on screen. From Kathe Sandler’s A Question of Color to Bill Duke’s Dark Girls to Spike Lee’s seminal opus on HBCU dynamics, School Daze, on-screen investigations of colorism have been expansive. Who can watch the iconic good and bad hair scene in School Daze without being overcome by an awkward, if not downright sickening, feeling of familiarity? As entertainment sits at the intersection of race, gender, economics and society, it provides a unique opportunity to address colorism and other potentially uncomfortable issues.
He’s also highlighting ways in which these tropes are being subverted for the better. Bogle pointed to Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, created by Black television writer and super-producer Shonda Rhimes, as an example of the ways on-screen portrayals of Black women are expanding. “I mean if we look at Viola Davis in How To Get Away With Murder whose character does have sexuality and who also has other dimensions aside from being a nurturer although some of that does come into it. We can’t deny colorism but at the same time if we can get a range of colors on the big screen and the small screens that’s a good thing,” Bogle said.
In Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers, Bogle charts the history of Black people in Hollywood up to the present day, where there is a newer, more broadly diverse Hollywood landscape in front of and behind the camera. The foreword of the book was written by the late Black film icon, director John Singleton.
“They wanted someone to write a foreword and I suggested John Singleton,” Bogle explained. “Word came that he said he would do it but he wanted to speak to me. He was very excited and he was very mindful of the deadline. In a way, he was more mindful than I am. I have to laugh when I think of it because he was such a director. He was like, ‘Donald, read it over, edit it, and get back to me!” Bogle laughs at the memory, “I read it and it was fine!”’
Singleton, and other directors like Lee, understood Bogle’s significance as one of the few serious and high profile Black film historians in the world. Bogle remembered, “I had done an interview with John Singleton for Turner Classic Movies for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Boyz N the Hood and he told me how much my book meant to him.” Bogle, for his part, remains deeply moved by Singleton’s work. “I knew John Singleton. We were friendly and I liked him a lot. John Singleton was not only someone who loved making movies but he loved seeing movies, and of course Boyz N The Hood remains a film that affects me no matter how many times I’ve seen it. I’m always affected by it emotionally and the portrait it presents.”
Bogle shared that he was filming at Turner Classic Movies studios in Georgia when the news of the pioneering director’s untimely demise hit the airwaves. “I was filming things that pertained to Black Hollywood at the time. Word broke that he was seriously ill, but I didn’t hear anything until he had passed. I was stunned.”
Bogle continued his collaboration with TCM, after having organized and co-hosted a 38-film series on changing images of African Americans in the movies. They approached him again about creating his newest project, Black Hollywood. “TCM was interested in a book that would deal with the Black experience in the movies and I came up with the idea to do this.”
Bogle this time wanted to cover the depth and breadth of the Black experience in American film and television with an aesthetic different from that of his previous books. “What I wanted to do with this book,” he began, “I wanted very much to use visuals in another way to join with text to present this history. The photographs also present this history in a direct way and that’s why I decided to do it. It’s comprehensive. It goes from the silent period and goes through with what happens when sound comes in and through the present with Black Panther, Get Out, and Moonlight. I wanted to tell the story accompanied by striking visuals.”
Hollywood Black is separated into chapters that each represent a different decade of filmmaking, from the early 1900s through the twenty-first century. One of the most salient messages in Hollywood Black is the fact that the Black American public has never been mere passive moviegoers. They have from the very beginning provided biting commentary and analysis about the ways in which films portray Black characters and the racial inequities in the film industry as a whole. They have also sought to have as much control over their images on the screen as society would allow. Black Americans protested the racist portrayal of Black people in D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. In the mid-twentieth century, there were protests about the way Blacks were being portrayed in the film version of Porgy and Bess, which starred Sidney Poitier. Bogle, in the book, pointed out that the popular actor did not want to take the role but ultimately felt too pressured by the industry to refuse it.
Authenticity in the representation of the Black experience is one of the elements of current day filmmaking which excites Bogle. In part, that’s because of who is now behind the camera. “Creators are now using their own voices to tell stories, such as Issa Rae and Donald Glover. In film, I like Jordan Peele quite a bit. I also like Spike Lee being revitalized with things like BlacKkKlansman.”
In Hollywood Black he also points out that modern-day filmmaker Tyler Perry is to be commended for overcoming much adversity to achieve preeminence in the film and television industry of the new millennium, but also doesn’t fail to remind readers that Perry has also come under fire from the Black movie-going public for what some critics have perceived as classism and stereotypical portrayals of Black people, Black women in particular, in his films and TV shows.
Still, Hollywood has more varying portrayals of Black people on screen than ever before, and more Black industry members are getting recognized for their work. The 2019 Oscar winners were the most diverse in the event’s history, coming in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign of 2016. Bogle pointed to the irony. Although there was an outcry over the dearth of Black nominees during the 2016 Oscar race he said, “From 2000 on, there have been more African-Americans nominated or winning than any previous time in history.” For Bogle, the most important and needed outcome from the campaign wasn’t the subsequent number of diverse nominees per se, but the makeup of the nominating body. He said, “We had already had all these nominees and winners. What happened was that they were forced to look at the makeup of the Academy itself and who was voting and that was quite significant.”
Statistically, however, the Academy still has a long way to go. Even after all of the new members the Academy has invited to join, people of color make up only 16% of the Academy voters, with no specific statistic on how many of those members are Black.
Even as there are more on-screen portrayals of Black people, the dearth of Black people behind the scenes remains problematic. Black actresses, in particular, have had to deal with issues surrounding the staffing of hair and makeup professionals who understand Black hair and skin tones.
Then there is the undying white savior narrative that seems to dog racially diverse films penned and directed by whites such as the infamous Green Book. Said Bogle, “Look in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, which continues to sell. I very much deal with images. I also deal with performances. Some of the types I talk about in Toms, Coons and also that I refer to in Hollywood Black, I don’t think they’ve completely gone away. When we look at a movie like Green Book, we now have more African American filmmakers but we still get these other things. They are just embodiments of the way that the people in Hollywood who control films think.”
The most important way to get Hollywood to end these practices, for Bogle, is to be vocal about it. He believes, “It’s important to continually speak out about this kind of thing and hopefully we will eventually eradicate it but no, it has not gone away.”
In addition to the white savior narrative, Bogle feels that Black women continue to be stereotyped, although it is packaged differently. “The whole thing with the mammy figure,” he said, “has not really completely gone away. The Help in a way took a step forward but also took steps back. It still maintained this image of the nurturing Black women even though Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer did great jobs. So we still have this, and that’s why we have to stay on the case and speak up about it.”
Stereotypes that affect Black men are also still present in Hollywood. “Even the discussion of the magical negro,” Bogle went on, ”The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance and so forth, are really grounded in the old Uncle Tom stereotype. That is the Black figure who will help the troubled white man or white family. We get it in movies and on TV. It’s not as flagrant or as widespread, but it’s there.”
One of the stars of Black Panther and another film Bogle said he was impressed with, Get Out, is Daniel Kaluuya, who is British. Bogle did admit that he has heard some of the observations over the past few years about the use of British actors (and indeed Black actors from other countries) in many American films and TV series. When the subject was broached, his first reaction was laughter. However, Bogle conceded there might be some validity to the observation that some filmmakers feel more comfortable working with foreign Black actors or feel that British actors are better trained. “Well, I don’t know what that’s all about. [Filmmakers] feel they’re better trained and maybe better prepared. This is what you’ll hear. Not that I don’t want to see British performers get work, and I don’t want to get into a nationalist thing, but I think that we do have excellent actors and actresses from this country who’ve been working hard and should have a chance.”
Bogle lauded Ryan Coogler and Black Panther for its success in centering darker-skinned Black actresses in a positive way. He conceded that observations that the roles, though inarguably positive, did not wholly seek to fill traditional notions of femininity, which is often the subject of debate when talking about the image of Black women on screen. Bogle connected the women’s roles in Black Panther to Black women in film history. He explained, “You can even look back to someone like Pam Grier whose characters were forceful figures with what were traditionally male traits. That is definitely an issue and a valid one.”
Bogle also expressed his excitement about the success of a number of Black actresses finally being rewarded and recognized for their hard work and talent. “I like Regina Hall quite a bit,” he said. “And it’s interesting to see Tessa Thompson rise. I really want to see what she does and how she functions as they try to revitalize the Men In Black franchise.”
Bogle shared that he was recently thrown for a loop as he channel-surfed and caught another one of his favorite actresses, a young Taraji P. Henson, on the old mystery series Murder She Wrote. “I was shocked to see she went that far back, to see her in that kind of television,” he said. “ Her success I’m really happy about. She’s put in all this time and all this work. It’s gonna be interesting to watch her career and see what she is able to do as time moves on. It may be a success she didn’t think she was gonna have after all these years, so it is really a great thing to see.”
Though the biopic of pioneering actress Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry was based on the 1970 biography by Earl Mills, it was Bogle’s 1997 biography of Dandridge that sparked renewed public interest in the actress. His book helped create the momentum needed to produce the film in 1998 for which Berry earned an Emmy for Lead Actress.
It isn’t difficult to tell, as you read Hollywood Black, that Bogle, though he admires Halle Berry, wasn’t a big fan of the film or the role that garnered her the Best Actress Oscar. Agreeing Monster’s Ball would also fall under the rubric of a “white savior” film, he said, “I didn’t really like Monster’s Ball. I thought Halle was good in it but I think that for Academy voters, it was also a white man’s depiction.” He doubts the film or the Oscar Berry received for it, helped her career. “After the Oscars, it was just… the wrong movies, whatever! And who knows what she was being offered? I mean, Catwoman just went nowhere, which wasn’t necessarily her fault. She really didn’t get to a certain point in her career until she became more sexualized. I didn’t so much like the way that they sexualized her in Swordfish with the [gratuitous] bare breasts and so forth.”
Interestingly, Bogle was more fond of one of Berry’s lesser-known films, the 1998 drama based on singer Frankie Lymon’s life, Why Do Fools Fall in Love? ”I really liked her in Why Do Fools Fall In Love. She was so spirited in that! The thing about Halle Berry, if you see her in Boomerang and some of these other films, she had a certain poise and she had this ladylike presence. She was not this, for lack of a better term, “Black whore”. She was refreshing. Actresses Black and white find themselves cheapened in that way in film and it wasn’t happening in that way to her. Then when she did become more sexualized, her career goes in another direction and that’s a comment on the industry and what it does to women in general–in this case, a Black woman.”
Bogle hadn’t gotten a chance to see the latest John Wick chapter 3: Parabellum at the time of the interview but, saying he had heard so many great things about her performance, he expressed incredible eagerness to see Halle Berry in it. “I wondered why she took the role because her career right now when we see what’s been happening with other Black actresses, it looked as if nothing of significance was happening to her. I’ve heard so many good things about her performance, I really want to see it. I like the fact that it’s not a huge part and she has such an impact. It’s gonna be interesting to continue to chart her career and there’s also the age factor, which comes in there for women.” I replied that getting older might in some ways be easier for Black actresses. Bogle conditionally agreed, “Well yes, to the extent that the whole nurturing thing comes into play.”
From the hard work and heroism of the previous generation of talent, Hollywood Black is a serious yet colorful celebration of Black Hollywood history and the stars of the new millennium such as Barry Jenkins, Michael B. Jordan, Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and others who are in the process of creating history.
Find Hollywood Black at amazon.com!