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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

The Black Actors Who Changed Cinema Forever

The past decade has seen monumentous change in terms of diversity in film. Some of the most iconic movies of the 2010's have included characters played by actors of color, and it seems like the era of completely white pictures is finally coming to an end. However, this progress was not acchieved overnight, nor even the past ten years. In order to get to the root of this change we need to go all the way back to the mid 20th century and set our eyes on two of the most prominant black trailblazers in film, Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier.

There's no doubt that Victor Fleming's Gone With The Wind is an extremely controversial film despite its cultural significance. It's a film that clearly reflects how prevalent racism was at the time for people of color in the entertainment industry, and the attitude towards black people in America. Every black performer is portrayed as a slave, and the movie tends to glorify the Antebellum South during the civil war. Gone With The Wind views the horror of slavery through rose-colored glasses. While there's no doubt the film probably caused a lot of harm at the time of its release, one good thing to stem from the film's legacy was Hattie McDaniel's Oscar win at the 1939 Academy Awards. McDaniel became the first ever black person to be nominated for and win an Oscar when she took home the award for Best Supporting Actress. McDaniel won for her portrayal of Mammy, the house servant/mother figure of protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara, played by Vivien Leigh. She became very fond of the character since she reminded McDaniel of her own grandmother.

Despite how historical her Oscar win was, it did not occur at a time of progress. Despite being one of the actors nominated for an award, McDaniel was forced to sit at a segregated table for two on the far side of the auditorium. The venue had a strict "no blacks" policy, and she was only allowed entry as a favor. All night, she sat in the back of the room with nobody but her agent, never dreaming that she'd take home a trophy that night. However the descrimination did not stop at the awards ceremony, the after party took place at yet another "no blacks" club where she was barred from entry. In fact, she wasn't even allowed to attend the premiere of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta, Georgia.

The success and legacy of Hattie McDaniel stands today as one of the most inspiring in the history of cinema. Despite every obstacle, every hardship, every undeserved heckle simply for being black, she still found herself accepting the most prestigous award Hollywood has to offer. Her extraordinary talent and resilience has caused her to remain one of the film world's most prominant icons, and one of the most important actors to ever live.

The next black performer to win an Oscar wouldn't come until 25 years later when Sidney Poitier became the first black person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964. The film that led him to this award was Ralph Nelson's Lillies of the Field, which is currently being preserved at the Library of Congress. The movie followed Poitier's character, Homer Smith as he attempts to help a group of Eastern European nuns build a chapel in the middle of Arizona. While it does have some memorable scenes, the real reason Lillies of the Field is remembered today is for Poitier's Oscar-winning performance.

Unlike Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier had quite a lot more memorable roles than the one he won his Oscar for. Perhaps his most iconic performance was as Dr. John Prentice in Stanley Kramer's 1967 film, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. It tells the story of a young interracial couple and the tensions between their families when they find out they wish to be married. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was released six months after interracial marriage was controversially made legal in the United States, and despite the technical legality, it was still extremely rare and not widely accepted to be part of an interracial couple. Kramer's film was able to bring this unorthodox lifestyle to the big screen, for millions of people to witness. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner managed to gross almost $57 million dollars at the box office despite its meek $4 million dollar budget. I think it's worthy to point out that even as a black actor in the 60's, Poitier was portraying an educated, proper, well-spoken doctor, not a slave or a criminal. The character of Dr, John Prentice served as positive representation for the black community in an industry where people of color were so often painted in a false/negative light.

Poitier recently passed away in early January of 2022, however it's safe to say that his extraordinary legacy will live on, long after his passing.

In terms of diversity in Hollywood, there is still so much work to be done, you can never have too much representation. However, looking back on the acchievements of Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poituer, who were able to succeed despite the impossible, gives me hope for a better tomorrow. On behalf of everyone here at I'd like to wish all of our readers a happy Black History Month! Don't forget to keep celebrating black creatives all year long!

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