Written by Kahmeela Adams for Video Trust
Some consider actress Dorothy Dandridge, born in Cleveland, Ohio on November 9, 1922, to be the first Black female movie star. Her mother, Ruby Dandridge, worked as a cook while Dandridge was a child. As a toddler, Dandridge performed a poem for her mom. Ruby spotted the talent and made the decision that her daughters would not be destined to work in kitchens. Dandridge and her sister Vivian would go on the road, performing as the Wonder Kids. “Mother arranged with the National Baptist convention for Vivian and me to perform at churches in a different state each month,” Dandridge writes in her autobiography Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy. Ruby’s partner, Eloise Matthews, who the girls called Auntie Ma-Ma, traveled with them. Auntie Ma-Ma gave the girls vocal and etiquette lessons, but was also found to be physically and mentally abusive.
By 1934, the sisters were performing with Etta Jones as “the Dandridge Sisters”, at venues like the famous Cotton Club where they backed Cab Calloway. During this time, Dandridge also landed several small movie roles. As a Black woman in the entertainment industry, Dandridge was confronted with racism and segregation regularly. Dandridge was constantly reminded of the color of her skin, as well as “her place” by being refused service at the very restaurants where she had just left the stage.
Since the beginning of film, Hollywood has mostly portrayed Black women as four main stereotypes: The asexual caregiving mammy. The magical negro who has some spiritual connection that is used to assist the white lead in their journey. The sassy Sapphire who takes no mess and will tell you off in a heartbeat. And the oversexed Jezebel who is presented through the male gaze and uses sex as her currency. Thanks to contemporary filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and others, the roles for black women have gotten deeper and more nuanced, but that’s not to say this good ‘ol boy way of casting is entirely gone.
It was by playing the title role of Carmen Jones, that Dandridge became Hollywood’s first Black sex symbol. Ironically, the power of Dandridge’s sexual overtones may have caused the demise of her career even as she was reaching her greatest popularity. Dandridge spent her life and career surrounded by abusers. And on September 8, 1965, it all came to a devastating end when Dandridge was found dead in her Hollywood home at age 42, with $2 in her bank account. Her cause of death was noted as being due to an overdose of antidepressants. Suggesting that she struggled with her mental health. In fact, one could argue that the racism in Hollywood was the actual cause of her death. According to Dandridge, “If you find yourself suddenly projected into a Caucasian orbit…you have an inner experience that is hard on the nerves. You must be at your best with each instant, for…you are ‘carrying the negro race.”
Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nichols in 1942, but the marriage was doomed from the start. Harold had a reputation of being a womanizer and Dandridge had basically retired from performing during this period. In 1943, Dandridge gave birth to their daughter Harolyn, who suffered from brain damage. While she was in labor, Harold took their only means of transportation, to go play golf. At first, Dandridge refused to go to the hospital without him. Harolyn’s delayed birth required the use of forceps, which possibly resulted in the brain damage that left her requiring lifelong constant care. Harolyn was unable to speak and couldn’t recognize Dandridge as her mother. By 1948, Harold had completely abandoned his family, leaving Dandridge to file for divorce in 1950.
After dropping the dead weight that was her husband, Dandridge returned to performing in nightclubs. It was her spectacular performance at the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood that got the attention of an MGM studio agent. The agent suggested that Dandridge play a club singer in Remains to Be Seen, which was already in production. After that, Dandridge got her first starring role in Bright Road. In the trailer, Dandridge is referred to as a “wonderful emotional actress”. Dandridge played a 4th-grade teacher in the South, struggling to reach out to a troubled student. This film would be the first of four times Dandridge would appear on screen opposite Harry Belafonte.
When it came time to cast for the title role of Carmen Jones, Dandridge was the first choice for director and writer Otto Preminger’s list. Only knowing her in the role of a demure schoolteacher in Bright Road, Preminger thought Dandridge would be better suited for the smaller role of quiet Cindy Lou. Knowing that she had to “dress down” for that role, Dandridge took matters into her own hands. She worked with Max Factor make-up artists to create a look to get her into character for the sultry role of Carmen. After seeing Dandridge in this “new” look and viewing some of her more carefree performances in past films, Otto gave her the role. Dandridge would be cast opposite Harry Belafonte, once more.
Carmen Jones was a box office success. Dandridge’s performance as a “shameless vixen” who works in a parachute factory, led her to become the first Black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a lead role. The role was in stark contrast to the usual roles of black women in the time, mostly as caretakers of some kind. Dandridge also found herself to be the first Black woman featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1954, the same year as the release of Carmen Jones. Gossip writer Walter Winchell called her performance “bewitching” and Variety said her “performance maintains the right hedonistic note throughout”.
It wasn’t just her talent and sex appeal that worked for Hollywood. Due to her lighter skin tone, Dandridge presented as racially ambiguous. So, depending upon the role and who it was marketed towards, studios were able to make her look more Black or look more White in marketing materials. Studios then tried to place her opposite leading white male actors but became too consumed with a fear of audience disapproval. With Hollywood filmmakers unable to create a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge, they soon reverted to subtly prejudiced visions of interracial romance. She appeared in several poorly received racially and sexually charged dramas, including Island in the Sun (1957), also starring Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, and Tamango (1958), in which she plays the mistress of the captain of an enslaved ship. These are also cases of studios casting her in roles where the character wasn’t necessarily Black. For example, she appeared as a Cuban slave of African descent in Tamango, a West Indian woman in Island in the Sun, and a woman of undetermined European origins in Malaga (1960). In fact, following Carmen Jones, she was contextualized almost exclusively as non-American. The only film role in which she played a Black American woman after Carmen Jones was another film directed by Preminger, Porgy and Bess (1959). Which happened to be one of her last films. They didn’t necessarily know what to do with her. American sociologist, Michael Omi once stated, that she “presented a quandary for studio executives who weren’t sure what race and nationality to make her…Ironically, what they refused to entertain as a possibility was to present her as what she really was, a Black American woman”.
In the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, Dandridge had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents. She was very hesitant to take on roles that she found degrading to the Black race. Among the missed opportunities from this period, Dandridge turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I (1956), because she refused to play an enslaved person. She wanted strong leading roles but found her opportunities limited because of her race. According to The New York Times, Dandridge once said, “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.”
Being a survivor of childhood and domestic abuse, along with the pitfalls that come with being a woman in the entertainment industry, Dandridge had grown accustomed to not feeling agency over herself. But in 1957, she took some of her power back when she sued tabloid magazine Confidential for printing a story about Dandridge that turned out to be false. The story alleged that Dandridge had sex with a white bandleader in the woods of Lake Tahoe. She testified that racial segregation had confined her to her hotel during her nightclub engagement in the Nevada resort city. They settled out of court for $10,000.
By 1963, Dandridge was no longer the name on everyone’s lips and studios stopped trying to find roles for her. She went back to singing in nightclubs, eventually filed for bankruptcy, and went into seclusion for a while. Right before her death, Dandridge looked to revive her acting career by signing on as the female lead in a movie based on outlaw Johnny Ringo. But unfortunately, that never came to be. On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with her friend Geraldine “Geri” Branton. Branton told biographers that they spoke for a long time that night. The conversation went from Dandridge speaking hopefully for the future to her singing melancholy tunes. With the last thing Dandridge said to Branton being, “Whatever happens, I know you will understand.” It’s sad to know the light had been snuffed out of Dandridge at such a young age. She had the potential for a full and fulfilling career. But as Harry Belafonte once said about Dandridge, “She was the right person, in the right place, at the wrong time.”
May 7, 2022
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