Tag Archives: Black Entertainers

Heroes of Black Entertainment Part 2

Courtesy of teem.org

Courtesy of teem.org

Last week, I wrote tributes to five incredibly talented and inspiring black entertainers to celebrate Black History Month. Five doesn’t cut it. This week, I’m honoring five more wonderful talents. Ten still is nowhere near enough, but it’s better than five.

Eartha Kitt

Courtesy of harryallen.info

Courtesy of harryallen.info

I can almost guarantee you that you’ll recognize Kitt from her signature gravelly purr and her champagne-gargled helium voice (which was featured in The Emperor’s New Groove). There was always a trace of wariness and a sad-eyed expression behind her gregariously coquettish persona. It could easily stem from her traumatic childhood. Born on a cotton-picking plantation in South Carolina to a white plantation owner father (whose identity was withheld from her by local authorities for her entire life) and a black mother, she was given up for adoption where she was regularly abused by her half-siblings and even raped by one of the half-brothers. At nine, she fled to Harlem and started singing and dancing as a means to escape living in subway stations. She struggled with an identity crisis at the beginning of her career in the 1950s because white film and TV producers were afraid that white audiences wouldn’t accept a sexualized black woman. She made the most of her stage and nightclub appearances where she donned the persona of “the original Material Girl,” singing tongue-in-cheek songs about gold-diggers and la grande vie in seven different languages.

Courtesy of cheesecakeslice.blogspot.com

Courtesy of cheesecakeslice.blogspot.com

Her eccentric persona, which was most iconically displayed as the second Catwoman on the cult 60s TV series Batman, overshadowed the fact that Kitt was also a powerhouse dramatic actress. Her Emmy-nominated performance as a heroin-addicted nightclub singer in I Spy is one of the most uncompromisingly gritty portrayals of addiction I have ever seen (many people seemed to agree as it was widely thought she was actually an addict after this performance). On a Ben Casey episode she gives a heartbreaking performance of a well-to-do and loved doctor’s wife who suffers from crippling clinical depression and mental illness. In spite of the many hard knocks, Kitt has never shied away from her beliefs. In 1968, she was pretty much professionally ostracized from the US for almost ten years when she confronted Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. I am still partial to her 80s disco phase where she humorously basks in her own outrageousness and otherworldly sexiness.

Louis Armstrong

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

It may seem cliché now since what seems like every musician has cited Armstrong as a musical influence, but it’s totally justified as he was one of the pioneers of modern music. His sense of rhythm and improvisation were as transformative for the times as those who were firsthand recipients of electricity. He coined the terms “cat” and “chops” which are still used in musical vernacular today. When he was starting out in New Orleans in the teens, jazz, which was billed as “race music,” was still very much a niche genre (and almost completely unknown to whites at the time). Once whites became hip and started diggin’ the music, in typical fashion, the press gave all the air time to white musicians and ignored most of the black pioneers. Armstrong, who had a distinctive vocal and trumpeting technique coupled with an effortlessly warm and captivating stage presence (apparently in real life he had a volatile temper), simply couldn’t be relegated out of the spotlight. His enthusiasm for his craft is contagious, even when listening to him or seeing him perform. What I found most interesting to learn about Armstrong was the liberal use of profanity in his vocabulary. On a recording with Billie Holiday his audible use of “fuck” drew much fire from critics and audiences of the day. His presence made even the most tedious of projects such as the Hollywood films High Society and Hello Dolly worthwhile. Although Armstrong was demoted to playing second fiddle to whites on screen, off camera he didn’t put up with their crap. He publicly called out President Eisenhower for not doing enough for civil rights. He was going strong until his bulimia caught up with him and contributed to a fatal heart attack in 1971. Thankfully his soul lives on in the countless recordings and film and TV appearances he made in his productive and jiving career.

Richard Ayoade

Courtesy of movies.yahoo.com

Courtesy of movies.yahoo.com

Indie films and TV shows are supposedly greater outlets for people who don’t fit the norm (anyone not young, fit, conventionally attractive white men and women). Counterintuitively, people of color have fewer opportunities in the alternative sector than in mainstream venues. British comedian, actor, writer, and filmmaker Richard Ayoade has infiltrated this whity tighty community, but strictly on his own terms. His droll delivery, nerdy persona, drawing laughs from constructing the humor of jokes, and his penchant for an absurd point-of-view make Ayoade one of the brightest personalities in interviews, comedy specials, and panel shows. He first gained prominence as one of the nerdy, socially awkward computer geniuses in the Britcom The IT Crowd. In the meantime, he’s directed two films, Submarine and The Double, both of which sound like wholly original concepts done with a dark, quirky touch. The latter film, which should be released sometime this year, is currently on the festival circuit and is drawing great reviews commending his inspired take of a Dostoevsky text. Right now, he’s one of the regular panelists and truthfully the only bright-spot of a too-thin premise British game show Was it Something I Said? His sarcastic defense of Hitler in the first episode is priceless. Since it’s only in its first series, it has potential to get better.

Dee Rees

Courtesy of stuffflypeoplelike.com

Courtesy of stuffflypeoplelike.com

As in life, black women in the film industry are on the lowest on the totem pole, with almost no chance to direct a feature film (though that is slowly changing). It is super inspiring (and perhaps slightly insane) that young writer-filmmaker Dee Rees would double up on what is considered box-office poison; a film that is largely an ensemble of black females and concerns lesbianism as one of its central themes. Yet she has persisted with this vision for years. The film, Pariah, began as a short that made festival rounds in 2007, drawing great acclaim. Despite the positive notices, Rees only received $500,000 to make the feature-length version. In what must have been trying circumstances, she managed to make an excellent film in terms of narrative, production values, and acting, using the unpolished roughness to create a tone that is in accordance with its realist and impressionist mood.

Courtesy of www.blackonblackcinema.com

Courtesy of www.blackonblackcinema.com

Pariah examines the repression and rigidity of the middle class in an upwardly mobile New York City black neighborhood through the experiences of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a thoughtful young adult grappling with being in the closet and trying to deal with her quietly dysfunctional family. Rees’ nuanced script evocatively presents the complexities and contradictions of all its characters, so that no one is strictly one-dimensionally good or bad. Instead, her approach is to present all of her characters as people, rather than archetypes, who are worthy of scorn, empathy, and sympathy. Had an art house theater owner in Rhode Island not shown Pariah, even though he knew he would take a loss, chances are good I never would have seen this film. Although there have been black female directors before Rees, like Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy, their directorial careers typically fizz out quickly. When Pariah the feature was released in 2011, to another round of raves, Rees didn’t receive much attention from entertainment publications and wasn’t part of any of the major panels of independent filmmakers. If we want challenging films that aren’t the typical Hollywood fare, it is in our best interest as consumers to support artists like Rees who have the vision and the craft to execute them.

Steve McQueen

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Courtesy of thewrap.com

While he shares his name with the iconic (white) Hollywood star of the 1960s and 70s, McQueen, a black writer-director from London, has firmly carved out his own identity. What white McQueen was for escapist action entertainment, black McQueen is for gritty and hard-hitting character dramas. This year, McQueen is the critical toast of the town with his stellar and unrelenting masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave, which by multiple accounts is a faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Slave’s lucid somber treatment of blacks is perhaps the first significant antidote to the racist and problematic depictions in Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation. The epic scope of the film unflinchingly depicts them as people with their own feelings and points of view, rather than mere victims. It also convincingly shows how slavery is detrimental to white people’s sanity. Slave has received bits of criticism; some have claimed that McQueen’s art school sensibility overly prettified things while others, like well-known contrarian critic Armond White decried it as “torture porn.” Interestingly, Slave is McQueen’s first film dealing with race issues.

Courtesy of npr.org

Courtesy of npr.org

In fact, McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, is uniformly populated with white bodies, as it tackles the hunger strike taken by Irish Republican Army prison inmates led by leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder). Hunger acted as a calling card for both McQueen and Fassbinder, but they gained more prominence with their next collaboration, Shame, a NYC-based drama about the tortuous life of a sex addict. Although McQueen has made only three features, he’s been producing art-house shorts featured in museum exhibitions for nearly twenty years, many of which seem to be more about ambiance and movement than plot. Although his works are more towards traditional narrative, McQueen doesn’t seem likely to tamp down the content of his works. Hopefully the success of Slave will grant him (and other black directors and writers) the opportunity to create more hard-hitting and necessary dramas.

Black Heroes of Entertainment

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Courtesy of thefeministgriote.com

Although blacks have continually been treated as if they were second-class citizens for hundreds of years they, arguably more so than any other group of people, have played a fundamental role in the foundation of the American identity as we know it. While many choose to (literally and figuratively) whitewash the history of popular culture and exclude the number of talented black artists from their narratives, I would like to recognize some of these individuals who have enriched our society with their originality. It would be impossible to give justice to every talented black artist in a single blog post, so I’ll start out by paying tribute to 5.

Pam Grier

Courtesy of theroot.com

Courtesy of theroot.com

Alas, she wasn’t one of the million black women named by Halle Berry in her rambling Oscar speech; though that isn’t too surprising as she tends to be snubbed in “respectable” circles because of her prolific association with the Blaxploitation film industry. The films’ ultra-low budgets and salacious content lead many to write off these films and the numerous young women who starred in them as less-than-worthy, but what people tend to forget is that there were few opportunities for black actors (particularly women) in mainstream cinema, and most of those roles were reduced to peripheral saintly Negro parts. Artistic merits of the films aside, they gave black female characters not only leading roles, but ones with agency and where they kick ass. Even in the early days amidst the large female ensembles, Grier proved that she was more than just T&A, as she enlivened her roles with genuine eroticism, but more importantly she exhibited a gift for intelligence and gravitas. To see her acting skills, check out her affecting performance as Jim Brown’s long-suffering wife in Mars Attacks! (1996) and as a tough but ethical states attorney who sparred with Stabler and Benson on occasion on Law and Order: SVU.

Billie Holiday

Courtesy of last.fm

Courtesy of last.fm

Like many icons, Holiday tends to be remembered as a one-dimensional myth. As popularized by the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday is conceived of as a poor lost soul who abused heroin as a means of enduring physical and emotional abuse from a string of worthless men. This is certainly all true, but it is only one side of her dynamic, multifaceted personality. While her life was strafed with tragedy and hardship, Holiday by numerous accounts lived life to the fullest and had a wild, raucous sense of humor. Other than her otherworldly vocal adeptness and one-of-a-kind phrasing, I’ve always gravitated towards her straight-forward philosophical insightfulness that permeated her songs, interviews, and her autobiography (also titled Lady Sings the Blues). The ironically named “God Bless the Child” remains a timeless and salient critique of the inequality of the status quo and how it’s predetermined from childhood. She always remained true to her voice, which is a near impossible thing in the music industry. The consumer has benefitted from her bravery; the minimalism of her voice and arrangements still feels fresh and contemporary today as then with none of the overproduced saccharine popular in the 1940s and 50s. She was light years ahead of her time, perhaps still way ahead of ours.

At a time when lynching was still legal, Holiday boldly sang “Strange Fruit” as a closing song after nearly every show, often with just a piano background and a spotlight on her face to make the harrowing lyrics inescapable. In her compelling autobiography, she frankly discussed the horrors of being raped (even using the word at a time when it simply wasn’t discussed) and articulated the futility of “The War on Drugs” and how addiction should be treated as a sickness rather than a crime. She may have not overcome all of her demons in the end, but she is far from being a victim and should be celebrated for her trailblazing accomplishments rather than lamented for her tragic demise.

Viola Davis

Courtesy of independent.com

Courtesy of independent.com

No, I’m not including Davis because she is a fellow alum of Rhode Island College (though that doesn’t hurt). I’m blowing my horn (though it’s the complete truth), but I was a diehard Davis fan before she achieved her long-overdue critical and mainstream success. The first Davis performance to blow me away was her guest appearance on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, where she played the ringleader of a group of murderous cops with chilling intensity. This character is interesting in that she is an insecure outcast with some some justifiable anger. She was a formidable opponent for Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio); in one memorable scene, she shows her intelligence where she profiles Goren with the same, sharp observation skills as the detective. Her portrayal was so convincing that it sparked controversy among black organizations. She is one of the few bonafide scene stealers in the business. In just a minute or two of screen time, Davis rose above the tedium of Denzel Washington’s directorial debut Antoine Fisher, contributing a mesmerizing performance as the titular character’s drug-addled mother, one made mostly of reactions of grief and pride. She first rose to widespread prominence with her 15-minute bravura performance in the otherwise dreary drama Doubt, where she etches the only human character as the mother of a student who might have been raped by a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who pleads mercy with a nasty self-righteous nun (Meryl Streep).

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

Again, she was stellar in The Help, transforming her archetypal servant role to something profound, giving a three-dimensional performance of a kind, intelligent woman who is stifled and quietly angry by her lack of opportunity. While the film on the whole was lightweight and frivolous, Davis was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar. Many speculated that she would have had the award in the bag had she campaigned for Supporting Actress, but she bravely (and rightly) went for the top prize because she wants leading roles where her character has agency, and she’s still strongly vying for that goal even though she’s almost 50. Let’s hope she makes it as she certainly has the talent and charisma.

Ivan Dixon

Courtesy of nndb.com

Courtesy of nndb.com

Even if you don’t recognize Dixon’s name, if you’re of a certain age or a classic sitcom buff, chances are good that you’d know his face, as he was the sole black cast member of the 1960s WWII sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. It is a pity that it is his best-known work as the limited, token part gave him the least room to show his quietly powerful acting where he played complex characters who were not always sympathetic. Higher quality roles came from guest appearances on other TV dramas of the time. Highlights include the dark and dramatic pilot of I Spy (the first show to feature a black actor, Bill Cosby, in a leading role), where he plays a sports star who defects to China for monetary reasons with abrasive gusto; as the cold and clinical psychologist and a gentle and generous African ambassador on separate episodes of The Fugitive; as a hard, militant but intelligent black power leader and a nonconformist and idealistic politician on separate episodes of The Name of the Game. He received an Emmy nomination for his starring role in a TV special The Final War of Olly Winter, which from what I’ve read is one of the first hard-hitting portrayals of the Vietnam War; it is perhaps more notable for having a black man and an Asian woman (Tina Chen) as the protagonists. By the 1970s Dixon almost exclusively directed films and TV episodes.

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

His most notorious effort was the highly controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door that was a hit before it was abruptly seized by the FBI who feared that the content would incite blacks into overthrowing the government. It didn’t see the light of day until its release on DVD in 2004. Spook, a favorite of the Black Panthers, is about a man (Lawrence Cook) who is the token black hire for the CIA. Angered by the racist and condescending treatment by the bureau, he uses his training and organizes a race war. It is more known for its unrelenting treatment of its subject and message than final artistic product, but that message continues to impact audiences today.

Ice-T

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Throughout its entire stay, most cultural critics have decried rap music as a crass and immoral force on (white) American society. Certainly like every other musical form, rap produces its fair share of mind-numbing inanity and no-talents. However, there are some thoughtful artists like Ice-T who have used rap as a means of protest, to illuminate the hard truths of the ghettoes that Middle America and the news media choose to ignore.

Ice-T’s 1992 punk song “Cop Killer,” about a vigilante killing cops who have systematically abused him, sparred national controversy and made him the target of criticism from the LAPD and President George Bush Sr. Like many of the edge 90s works, it was wrongly branded as being gratuitous. The impact of the song is how it unflinchingly reflects the deep seated antagonism between the police and people on the streets and its suggestion that the two can’t co-exist, which might be true. Although he’s shifted to acting these days (ironically most famous as a cop on TV), Ice-T hasn’t lost his edginess. As one of the SVU detectives on the dark series Law and Order: SVU, he gives his role a gritty realism and a flawed, but overall decent character, not like the typical clean-cut cop.

Tune in next time for more tributes of some iconic black artists and entertainers. Who you include on your list?