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Black magic on silver screen

Oscar history was rewritten on March 24. RANDOR GUY traces the past.


``The Jazz Singer"...

EVEN DURING the Silent Movie era, `black' roles were played by white actors in blackface.

When cinema began to talk and sing in Hollywood in 1927 with ``Jazz Singer", the white lead player Al Jolson sang in blackface. In D.W. Griffith's silent film and controversial classic ``The Birth of a Nation" (1914), a white actor played the black man's role with blackface but the thin lips gave him away.

When black actors began to appear on the Hollywood screen they were either as slaves or stereotyped caricatures shown mostly eating watermelon. And some talented singers played singing roles.

Like Paul Robeson and Lena Horne. American movie history was created in 1939 when for the first time, an African-American (this expression was not yet in use) - actress Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress - Oscar for her brilliant performance as the slave-maid to the Southern belle heroine, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in the 1939 box-office blockbuster and classic, ``Gone With The Wind" (GWTW). The film bagged a stunning crop of as many as nine Oscars and McDaniel raised more than eyebrows in the U.S. especially in the South.

Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952) was a popular radio vocalist of her day and made a mark in ``Showboat" and of course her crowning achievement was in GWTW.

Before she died young in 1952, she appeared in the popular TV Series, "Beulah." However before she tasted the sweet fruit of success with GWTW, in the same movie she had to sadly swallow a few bitter pills too. The author of the best-seller, Margaret Mitchell, hailed from the South and lived in Atlanta, Georgia. As the story was all about a Southern belle, and the turbulent times of the American Civil War during which she lived, the dynamic producer, David O. Selznick, decided to have the movie preview in Atlanta with fanfare. And poor McDaniel was in for a rude shock. She was not invited to the Atlanta champagne and caviar preview. Her name was also deleted from the film credits given in the glossily printed invitation. The producers were scared of trouble in the racist state of Georgia. McDaniel was one of the five nominees for the Best Supporting Actress Award and the Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland who was also in GWTW in a bigger role was the favourite expected to win the Oscar. When McDaniel's name was announced thunderous applause rent the air. It was an incredible moment in Hollywood history! Nearly two decades rolled over before another black actor could get at least a nomination.

That was in 1958 when the one and only Sidney Poitier got nominated for the Best Actor for his role in Stanley Kramer's ``The Defiant Ones" which boldly took a close look at racism.


Hattie McDaniel.

Poitier and Tony Curtis were two convicts on the run with their wrists chained together. Curtis too got nominated but neither won the Oscar.

Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in ``Lilies of the Field" (1963). He was the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar thus creating movie history. Poitier walked in a daze to receive his Gold.

The year 1967 saw Poitier essay another brilliant performance in the racially charged crime thriller, ``In The Heat of the Night." The critics raved about him and the film won the Best Picture Oscar, but he did not get even a nomination. The award went to Rod Steiger who was the gum-chewing bigoted Mississippi small town white Sheriff. During 1967 Poitier had three hits — ``To Sir with Love," ``In the Heat of the Night" and ``Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" — but he got no awards. The burly Broadway stage black actor, James Earl Jones received nomination for Best Actor in 1970 for his commanding role in the taut boxing drama, the ``Great White Hope."

Time magazine commented, ``In Jones' 8-ounce gloves, black is beautiful, black is ugly, black is gentle, black is truth - in brief black is man and a man is the world." But the Oscar went to George Scott.

Other black artistes who received nominations in the later years were Cicely Tyson (Best Actress - ``Sounder," 1972), Whoopi Goldberg (Best Actress - ``The Color Purple," 1985), Morgan Freeman (Best Supporting Actor -``Street Smart, 1987) and (Best Actor - ``Driving Miss Daisy, 1989). Denzel Washington won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in ``Glory" (1989). And then came March 24, 2002. That evening, in Hollywood, African-American artistes of both sexes created a new kind of history. Well, that's another story.

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