Tonight at 8pm Eastern, TCM airs the Oscar-winning and box office champ that was the first classic movie aired when the network channel made its debut. The film is 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Reportedly, there will be a discussion about racial aspects of the classic before the film airs. I am eager to see this discussion and others like it because -- let's face it -- we Black people have been excluded from the classic film conversation for decades. I'm interested to see if discussions about problematic images in old movies will connect to modern-day problems in the Hollywood movie business. The groundbreaking Oscar win of Black actress Hattie McDaniel and her Hollywood treatment afterwards have a definite connection to the modern-day versatile actress like Gabourey Sidibe who got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her stunning performance in the 2009 drama, PRECIOUS. The two GONE WITH THE WIND actors to win Oscars were Vivien Leigh, Best Actress for playing Scarlett O'Hara. and Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress for playing Mammy.
About the exclusion of the Black gaze and voice in film discussion: My classic film passion was ignited when I was a grade schooler in Los Angeles. The film that sparked it was TOP HAT starring Fred Astaire, my all-time favorite entertainer. Local L.A. television had a few classic movie TV hosts. Not a one was Black. No Black talent was seen on local TV doing entertainment reports. The newspapers -- The Los Angeles Times and The Herald Examiner did not have Black film critics. Nor did major magazines like Time and Newsweek and popular film magazines. Back in the 80s, each network weekday morning show had a critic who did reviews on Fridays. You remember Gene Shalit on TODAY, Joel Siegel on GOOD MORNING AMERICA and Gene Siskel on the CBS morning show. There was also the hugely popular Chicago PBS weekly film review show, SNEAK PREVIEWS, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. When Siskel & Ebert left PBS for Disney syndication, PBS had new pairs of film critics on the show. We saw the likes of Jeffrey Lyons, Michael Medved and Neal Gabler. ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT had Leonard Maltin. Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) were coupled for film review duties on AT THAT MOVIES and later replaced by A.O. Scott (of The New York Times) and Michael Phillips. That was the Caucasian group telling us why we should see THE COLOR PURPLE, DO THE RIGHT THING and BOYZ N THE HOOD. A group that was predominantly While male. No TV columnist ever questioned the whiteness of that film critic field. The group of hosts on AMERICAN MOVIE CLASSICS, when AMC aired old movies, was all White male. Having lived and worked in New York for 25 years, years in which I attended many movie screenings so I could review the films or interviews its stars, I can tell you that there are many Black film critics in New York City alone. I talked and traded career stories with several of them. We all shared the same frustration -- that we could never get considered to be movie critics or movie hosts on TV. We were only tapped to be on TV and discuss films when it came to these categories:
1. Films to recommend for Black History Month.
2. Black images in a controversial new film
3. To give soundbites about a Black celebrity who just died or got jail time.
To further prove how Black film reviewer/film historian can be easily overlooked, look at the fine HBO special on Steven Spielberg entitled SPIELBERG. That 2017 documentary had seven film critics/historians giving soundbites. Not a one was Black. We didn't even see a Black film critic in the 10 minute portion devoted to THE COLOR PURPLE.
A White film critic or movie host can discuss Elia Kazan's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Gordon Parks' THE LEARNING TREE and Jack Lemmon's performance in UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE. We Black folks would be tapped to discuss only THE LEARNING TREE. I feel that full racial inclusion comes when we can discuss all three of those films like the White folks can.
When I was a kid, before its network premiere on CBS, GONE WITH THE WIND was still making big money in re-releases My sister and I went to see it one Saturday afternoon when it was in re-release. I knew it was a classic and hungry to see it. Mom said it was a really good movie. She drove us to the movie theater and picked us up when the movie ended. When we got home, Mom wanted to hear what we thought of it. I grew up in South Central L.A. during the Civil Rights era. So my sister and I were well aware of the funky images of happy, enslaved Black people. Mom gave us history about Hattie McDaniel. We were having a discussion about GONE WITH THE WIND.
Yes, there are troublesome images of Black people in GONE WITH THE WIND. Those images will be discussed tonight on TCM. However, there was also segregation during the Hollywood production that made you wonder how far society had come since the end of the Civil War. As reported on National Public Radio (NPR), the restrooms during the Culver City shoot were segregated. They were for Whites only. Two surviving African American men who worked as extras in GONE WITH THE WIND told NPR that there were no lavatory facilities for the Black extras. They complained to star Clark Gable, whose best friend in his youth was Black. When Gable got that news, he was livid. He was a privileged White male who not only heard about racial discrimination, he did something about it. The two Black actors told NPR that lavatory facilities for Black cast members were installed on the Culver City location because of Clark Gable.
How does the Hattie McDaniel Oscar victory connect to today's Black actresses? After her Oscar win, Hollywood still treated Hattie like a second class citizen. She won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1940 for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Look at the 1942 comedy THE MALE ANIMAL, a comedy that reunited McDaniel with her fellow Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for GONE WITH THE WIND, Olivia de Havilland. The film stars Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda, Joan Leslie and Jack Carson -- and Hattie McDaniel. Of those five cast members, Hattie is the only Oscar winner. But her maid role is practically a bit part with lines she has to deliver in a stereotypical way. Lines like, "Yes'm. I'll get da door." The same applies to her maid role in the 20th Century Fox hit comedy from 1946, MARGIE. Her star quality and charisma pops in Disney's 1946 fantasy/musical hit, SONG OF THE SOUTH. She's a plantation cook who introduces a new song, "Sooner or Later," that was covered by popular vocalists of the day such as Doris Day. She sings it with James Baskett who played Uncle Remus in the controversial Disney film. For his performance, he was bestowed an honorary Oscar -- making him the first Black male and the second Black person to receive an Academy Award. The first was Hattie. White Hollywood loved Mammy and Uncle Remus.
After her Oscar win, Hattie McDaniel should've starred in a Hollywood biopic about educator, activist and advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune or one based on the life of investigative journalist and NAACP founder, Ida B. Wells. But Hollywood kept her in supporting roles as a domestic. From the 1970s to today, there are several Black actress who were treated like second class citizens after their Oscar nominations. I've blogged previously that Black actresses such as Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Margaret Avery (THE COLOR PURPLE), Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (SECRETS & LIES), Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe had to turn to TV for steady employment after their Oscar nominations because Hollywood had no other good script opportunities for them. Even Viola Davis went to ABC TV to star in the series HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER because Hollywood had no work for her after her second Oscar nomination. The same cannot be said of White actresses such as Jessica Lange, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Lawrence after their first Oscar nominations. They got offers to do other work that brought them more Oscar nominations. I cannot recall any White entertainment journalist covering why Black actresses had to go to TV after their Oscar nominations. Look at the TV news andTCM video obit tributes to Cicely Tyson. The clip from her magnificent Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance in 1972's SOUNDER is not followed by another film clip after 1972.. If it is, the clip is from Cicely Tyson's role in 2011's THE HELP. That's because, after SOUNDER, Tyson had to go to TV to play Miss Jane Pittman, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman and Chicago educator Marva Collins. Hollywood had nothing for Cicely Tyson right after SOUNDER. Gabourey Sidibe recently told COLLIDER that Hollywood opportunities didn't open up for her in the same way they did for Anna Kendrick who was nominated in the same year as Sidibe. Kendrick was a first-time Oscar nominee, like Sidibe, Kendrick was in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category for UP IN THE AIR.
I've been a devoted TCM fan since 1999. Full disclosure, a TCM representative was in the studio when I was on Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK and did a live interview of Tony Curtis. He was promoting a TCM appearance and that interview is one of the favorites of my career. He was in terrific form and won over the entire floor crew. That was also the beginning of my 10-year pitch to work for TCM. I always got very polite rejections and I was always flattered that TCM actually watched my submitted demo reel. The rejection letters referred to specific parts of my tapes. Nonetheless, during my years of devotion, I noticed that Black accomplishments were occasionally overlooked by TCM before it's 2019 hire of its first African American host, Jacqueline Stewart.
I'll give you an example. For Gay Pride Month in 2017, entertainment journalist and TCM host, Dave Karger, celebrated the month by presenting films with a spotlight on Gay Hollywood History. He had films with gay characters, films with actors who were gay (Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift) and films based on works by gay playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Harvey Fierstein. I watched because I'm a member of the gay community and I wanted to see if there would be any Black representation. There wasn't any. And there could have been. The groundbreaking Broadway play, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, was written by African American playwright, Lorraine Hasberry. She also wrote the screenplay for the 1961 film adaptation from Columbia Pictures. Hansberry was a writer/activist and an out lesbian. A RAISIN IN THE SUN should've been part of that June line-up. In addition, her screenplay credit in the opening credits was a first for a Black woman in a film released by a major Hollywood studio.
In TCM host promos, now airing, Dave Karger mentions his love for the 1980 teen comedies from John Hughes. Remember the Black teen characters in those comedies? You can't. There weren't any. Not in THE BREAKFAST CLUB, SIXTEEN CANDLES or FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF. Even though his teen comedies had action set in or around the Chicago area in the 1980s, there were no Black teen characters. Compare them to the racially inclusive 1980s Chicago area high school teen comedy, WILDCATS, produced by and starring Goldie Hawn and fine 1975 comedy about Black Chicago high school teens, COOLEY HIGH, directed by Michael Schultz. The John Hughes lack of racial diversity in his high school teen comedies could be TCM discussion material.
Jacqueline Stewarts participates in the pre-GONE WITH THE WIND discussion tonight on TCM GONE WITH WIND airs at 8pm Eastern.
Here's one of the demo reels I submitted to TCM. No brag, just fact: I was the first Black person to host a weeknight, prime time celebrity talk show on VH1. I hosted and did most of my own research.