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The 1930's and 40's were difficult times for black actors in Hollywood.  There were a few films made specifically for the African American audiences, with stars like Lena Horne and Cab Calloway, showcasing their talents in light musical fair, but for the most part, black actors were relegated to playing background roles in most of the serious projects.  

Pinky was a groundbreaking film, in that it brought to light the issue of racism, at a time when America would have preferred to ignore the issue altogether.  Slavery may have been a thing of the past, but in many parts of America, segregation was a common fact of life, and Hollywood, for as liberal as it may have been, didn't think that audiences would be willing to look at themselves in such a critical light.


The 1950's have been mythologized as a carefree decade, where life was innocent, and the world was perfect.  In reality, change was brewing, and social norms were being upset, all of which would come to a head in the 1960's.  

The civil rights movement was in full swing, particularly in the south, where black activist groups were forming, and segregation and prejudice were being challenged head on.  Hollywood wasn't too quick to react, but some of the films that came out of that decade did reflect some of the changing moods that were prevalent

In 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black actress to receive a Best Actress nomination for her work in Carmen Jones.  The film was a musical remake of the classic opera, and featured an all-black cast.  In an ironic twist that echoed the film Pinky, Dandridge, and her co-star, Harry Belafonte, were cast based on their light skinned appearance, something that would be more appealing perhaps, to white middle America.  Despite the fact that Dandridge was considered one of the most beautiful women of her day, she was never able to break out of the racial mold that Hollywood had cast her in.  Despite her success, she even faced racism head on.  A hotel that she once stayed in drained their swimming pool to ensure that she didn't use it.  The troubled actress committed suicide in 1965.

The great Sidney Potier emerged in the 1950's.  Discovered on Broadway, he was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck in 1950 to appear in No Way Out, a film about racial tensions in the south.  The film received a nomination for screenplay, and Potier became the toast of Hollywood, as a respected dramatic actor.  

Potier became the first black man to receive an Oscar nomination in 1958, when he played opposite Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.  Potier didn't win that award, but he was nominated again in 1964 for Lilies in the Field, a small film about a laborer who helps a group of nuns in Mexico to build a church.  

While trade papers and black groups, like the NAACP, promoted Potier, he didn't see the significance of a win.  "I do hope there will be residual benefits for other Negro actors, but I don't fool myself into thinking that the effect will be vast."  He spoke about going to films during his childhood and seeing black actors on screen.  "There was the Negro devoid of any dignity," he said to the press after winning the Best Actor Oscar.  "Good maids who laughed too loudly, good butlers afraid of ghosts."  Potier said that he wanted to make 'motion pictures about the dignity, nobility, and magnificence of human life.'

In the sixties, the Academy did begin to recognize that brought to light the black experience, particularly if Potier was involved.  Shelly Winters would win her second Oscar for A Patch of Blue, in 1965, playing a woman who objects to her blind daughters romantic involvement with a black man, played by Potier.  Rod Steiger would win the Best Actor award in the Best Picture of 1967, In the Heat of the Night, playing a racist southern sheriff, against Potier's Yankee cop.  

It wasn't until 1972, that a film about the hardships of black society, made the list of Best Picture contenders.  1972 turned out to be a good year for black film makers overall, when Martin Ritt's film, Sounder, received four nominations, including Best Actor for Paul Winfield and Best Actress for Cicely Tyson.  Lon Elder III became the first black man to get a screenwriting nomination. 

Diana Ross was also in contention for the Best Actress prize that year, for her role in Lady Sings the Blues, the Billie Holliday bio.  Heavy campaigning by Barry Gordy was blamed for her ultimate failure to win the big prize, but 1972 was a tight and controversial year for the Academy.  Godfather was the undisputed frontrunner, eclipsing Sounder, and any other film that was nominated against it, and Liza Minelli gave the performance of her career in Cabaret, while it was suggested that the 'black vote' was split between Tyson and Ross for Best Actress. 

Even though Sounder didn't win, it still held promise of better things to come for black actors and actresses.  With such good representation that year, it seemed like equality wasn't too far behind, and before long, the Academy would be recognizing talent in the African American community. Sadly, that couldn't have been further from the truth. 

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A film that promised equality for black actors in Hollywood.
Paul Winfield is the poor sharecropper, Nathan Morgan, who steals food to feed his family.
Cicely Tyson is his wife, Rebecca.
Cicely watches with her children, as her husband is arrested for stealing.
Dukes of Hazzard sheriff, James Best plays the racist Sheriff Young.
Kevin Hooks plays the eldest son, David, who visits his imprisoned father.
Carmen Mathews as Mrs. Boatwright, helps David to find out what prison camp his father has been sent to.
Mrs. Boatwright and the Morgan clan look for the labor camp on a map.
Cicely sends her son out on a long journey to visit his father.
David inquires as a camp about his father.
Miss Johnson is the school teacher who takes David in while during his journey.
 
David isn't successful on his first journey out.
 
Cicely continues to tend to the crops and raise the family, in the absence of her husband.
 

Here is a selection of  films that can be purchased on DVD or VHS!

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