By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
It's been a long, difficult road for African Americans in achieving equality in all aspects of American life, and Hollywood is no exception.
Long relegated to stereotyped roles, black actors struggled for decades to get bigger and better parts that more honestly reflected the black experience. Such early actors helped pave the way for Oscar-winning performers like Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and this year's Oscar nominees from "The Help," Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.
Three of those pioneers — Ethel Waters, James Baskett and James Edwards — created memorable characters despite being horribly confined by the racism of the industry at that time. With Black History Month kicking off this month, we look at these three breakthrough artists.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977)
The legendary jazz, blues and gospel singer had a difficult start in life. Her mother, Louise Anderson, was 13 when she gave birth to Ethel. Louise had been raped at knifepoint by Ethel's father. "I was never a child," Waters would later say. "I was never cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family."
At age 15, Waters sang at a club in Philadelphia on amateur night. She so impressed the management that she was given a job and billed as "Sweet Mama Stringbean." In 1921, she began recording and four years later became the main attraction at Sam Salvin's Plantation Club in Harlem, where she introduced one of her signature tunes, "Dinah."
By 1927, she was on Broadway, and in 1929, she appeared in the Warner Bros. early talkie "On With the Show!," where she performed "Am I Blue?" In 1933, she introduced the song "Stormy Weather" at the Cotton Club in Harlem. She was back on Broadway in 1933 in the musical "As Thousands Cheer," marking the first time a black performer worked with a white cast. Waters spread her wings on Broadway, going dramatic in 1939's"Mamba's Daughters." The following year, she appeared in the musical fantasy "Cabin in the Sky," which she reprised for the 1943 film version.
Waters became the second African American actress to earn a supporting Oscar nomination, for 1949's "Pinky," as the loving grandmother of a light-skinned woman passing for white. She earned raves as the maid in the 1950 Broadway drama, "The Member of the Wedding," which she reprised in the 1952 film version. She took on the role of the sassy maid in 1950 in the TV series "Beulah" but left because she despised how the series depicted blacks. Her last film was 1959's "The Sound and the Fury."
"I sang them [the blues] out of the depths of the private fire in which I was brought up," Waters said. "Only those who are being burned know what fire is like."
James Baskett (1904-48)
The actor, who introduced the Oscar-winning tune "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" in Disney's 1946 live action-animated "Song of the South," is the first African American male to win an Academy Award. He won an honorary award for "his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world." (Poitier was the first black male to win a competitive acting Oscar, for 1963's "Lilies of the Field.") He didn't attend the premiere in Atlanta because the city was racially segregated and he wouldn't have been able to participate in the events.
But he's all but forgotten because "Song of the South," based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, has not been available for several decades because of its portrayals of blacks, which later generations decried as stereotypical.
James Edwards (1918-70)
A year before Poitier made his film debut in 1950's "No Way Out," Edwards starred in the racially charged World War II drama "Home of the Brave," based on Arthur Laurents' play. Produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Mark Robson, the film revolved around the harsh prejudice that a young black private endures while serving with a white unit in the South Pacific.
The Indiana native earned a degree in drama from Northwestern but put acting on hold while serving in World War II. He received massive facial injuries during the war, and his face had to be reconstructed. It was suggested that he take elocution lessons to help with his speech after the surgery. The lessons renewed his love of acting.
The tall, handsome and athletic Edwards eventually ended up in New York, where he made his debut in 1945 in the play "Deep are the Roots," in which his character has an interracial love affair. He made his film debut in a small role in 1949's "The Set-Up" before "Home of the Brave."
Despite his presence and his dignified strong performances, Edwards never became a star. But he continued to get interesting roles with such stellar directors as Sam Fuller ("The Steel Helmet"), Fred Zinnemann ("The Member of the Wedding"), Stanley Kubrick ("The Killing"), John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") and Franklin Schaffner ("Patton").