Black Pioneers in Hollywood: Five Decades

Producers Library celebrates Black History Month by showcasing in footage and photos, Pioneering Black performers of early Hollywood.

As for many white actors of the era, Vaudeville proved to be a springboard to the silver screen for Black actors like Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry, better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit, and Clarence Muse.

Prolific director Oscar Micheaux cast actor Paul Robeson in his first role in 1925. Robeson would go on to appear in films into the 1940s before he fell prey to blacklisting during the McCarthy era. Robeson mentored future star Harry Belafonte, also a successful recording artist in the 1950s, who introduced the world to Calypso music. Belafonte’s co-star in the 1954 Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge, would become the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Fifteen years earlier, Hattie McDaniel was not only nominated but won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind.

Lena Horne’s successful career on stage and screen prevailed over 70 years. Any conversation about the Black pioneers of cinema would be remiss without mentioning Sidney Poitier. He played a large part in expanding the image of who an African American is and what he can be on screen since his first role as a doctor in 1950. The following decade, Poitier would become the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor and continued his long, iconic cinematic career as actor and filmmaker.

Footage of these African American screen pioneers can be viewed here.