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The films, the stars, the filmmakers — the struggles, the triumphs: all get their due in Hollywood Black, a sweeping overview of African Americans in film, covering more than a century of cinema with striking photos and an engrossing history by award-winning author Donald Bogle.
Hollywood Black opens in the silent film era, when white actors in blackface often played black characters and D. W. Griffith premiered his shocking, controversial The Birth of a Nation. Sound motion pictures were ushered in by Al Jolson in blackface in The Jazz Singer, but in this new era of filmmaking, black performers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louise Beavers, Paul Robeson, and Butterfly McQueen began finding a place in Hollywood. More often than not, they were saddled with rigidly stereotyped roles, but still, some gifted performers were able to turn in significant performances. Hollywood Black will spotlight such talents, notably Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award, for her work in Gone With the Wind (1939).
In the coming decades, more black talents would light up the screen. Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American actress to earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Carmen Jones in 1954, and Sidney Poitier would be the first black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Hollywood Black reveals the changes in images that came about with the evolving social and political atmosphere of the country, from the Civil Rights era to the Black Power movement.
Hollywood Black will follow through the Blaxploitation era with movies like Shaft and Super Fly and the arrival of such directors as Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles; to the emergence in the late 1970s and ’80s of such stars as Diana Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy; and of directors Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes brothers. The book comes up to the present with filmmakers such as Steve McQueen (Twelve Years A Slave), Gina Prince Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees), Lee Daniels (Precious), F. Gary Grant (Straight Outta Compton), Nate Parker (who directed his own version of The Birth of a Nation) — and such megastars as Denzel Washington; Will Smith; Halle Berry; Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, and a glorious gallery of others. With photographs and stories of stars and filmmakers on set and off, Hollywood Black tells an enthralling, underappreciated history.