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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?