Today black actresses are actively breaking down barriers and making strides in Hollywood. With films like Girls Trip which saw Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish as co-leads in a smash hit; although a work in progress, black women continue to make their mark.
But what about those who never got their flowers? The actresses that made their subtle mark in uncredited maid roles, or died penniless trying to make their big break. The performers who were overlooked during their time, and forgotten after. Ultimately these women were pioneers and paved the way for actresses like Latifah, Pinkett-Smith, Hall, Haddish and more.
I believe it’s important to highlight some of these starlets who took to the screen during the golden age of Hollywood (1920’s-1960’s) and the sacrifice’s they made to open the doors for future generations of aspiring performers.
Theresa Harris (1906-1985)
During her days on the big screen, Theresa Harris was remembered for playing a ‘beautiful maid but she was also a fantastic actress, singer and dancer. Harris was one of the most hard-working women in Hollywood. During her stunning career, she appeared in close to 90 films, working at every major studio and with the top-billed stars.
Harris was multi-talented and graced the screens with a magnetic presence that often outshone the ‘top’ stars in the scenes. Although stereotyped repeatedly as ‘the maid’, any time she was given a chance to step out of her apron she made sure to make an impact.
In the pre-code classic Baby Face (1933), she shared equal screen time with Barbara Stanwyck, which was extremely rare between white and black actors in this time period.
Harris should also be remembered for being an outspoken spokesperson on inequality. She boldly spoke about discrimination that she faced and encouraged the Black-American community to support black-owned film companies, especially Million Dollar Productions:
“I never had the chance to rise about the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My colour was against me anyway you looked at it. The fact that I was not “hot” stamped me either as uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. I can sing but so can hundreds of other girls. Hollywood had no parts for me.” – August 1937 issue of The Afro-American.
Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967)
Nina Mae McKinney was an actress and entertainer. The 1929 film Hallelujah (directed by King Vidor) gave Nina Mae McKinney her big break. It was Hollywood’s first all sound film, with an all-black cast. McKinney appeared on screen singing and dancing up a storm. Director Vidor recognised her gift: “She just had it. Whatever you wanted, whatever you visualised, she could do it”.
Her performance in ‘Hallelujah’ impressed MGM productions so much that they offered her a 5-year contract. However, 1930’s Hollywood was just not prepared to cast black women in meaningful roles.
“She could act, sing, dance and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her,” Famous dancer Fayard Nicholas stated in Stephen Bourne’s 2011 biography titled Nina Mae McKinney: The Black Garbo.
In frustration, McKinney moved to Europe to try to further her career. It did work in her favour as she was one of the first African – American’s to appear on British TV and had a successful musical and theatrical career.
McKinney ended up appearing in more than two dozen films and shorts over two decades, but about half of those were uncredited parts — often as a maid (the kind of stereotypical role she had publicly vowed never to play) or an unnamed entertainer in a nightclub scene. One of her most acclaimed performances was as an undercover agent posing as a cabaret singer in Gang Smashers (1938), the best of her three “race movies” (low-budget features made for black audiences). Her last credited screen appearance came in Pinky (1949).
She eventually returned to America and ironically was believed to be working as a maid. She died tragically of a heart attack at the early age of 54.
Marpessa Dawn (1934-2008)
Before Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll and Dorothy Dandridge, there was Marpessa Dawn.
Dawn was an African-American and Filipino performer who could act sing and dance. She is best known for her role in the movie, Black Orpheus.
Marpessa migrated to France and this was where this actress’ entertainment career began to take flight. She started out initially as a governess then she began to sing and dance in nightclubs. At the age of 24, Dawn earned the role of Eurydice in the film, Black Orpheus or Orfeu Negro – a romantic tragedy based on a play called Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes set in the slum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
As the end of the 1960’s came her stardom began to fade away. Nevertheless, she appeared in the following movies: Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, Sweet Movie, Vinicius and Sept En Attente in 1996.
Similarly to Nina McKinney, Marpessa died tragically of a heart attack in August 25, 2008.
Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2001) – Dressmaker to the stars.
Behind the curtains sat an iconic designer whose light often got dimmed – Zelda Wynn Valdes. Costume design and the image is just as important as the actor themselves and enhances the performance on the big screen. Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald and the Playboy Bunny all have Zelda Wynn Valdes to thank for many of their iconic looks. Valdes is one of the most influential fashion and costume designers of all time.
Valdes started off humbly working for her uncle as a tailor. Eventually, she worked her way up from a stock girl to altering clothes in an upmarket clothier. She faced many discriminatory remarks and prejudice from customers, but her talent was undeniable. In 1948 she became the first black female designer to open her own shop, Chez Zelda. She had a loyal clientele from famous broadway entertainers, to important figures in the African-American community. Over the years her momentum and success only increased and in 1949 she became the President of the New York branch of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers.
Wether it was creating the legendary Playboy Bunny, or being the visionary behind Joyce Bryant’s sensual aesthetic Valdes’ impact on both fashion and pop culture is iconic. She spoke modestly of her creativity:
“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful”.