Saturday, June 1, 2013

If Ethel were Chick...

Ethel [Waters] could have had her first starring role in MGM's Hallelujah!, which was released on August 20, 1929. She was the first choice of the film's director, King Vidor, but lost the part to a sixteen year old chorus girl named Nina Mae McKinney when "the talent man King Vidor went East to wave gold bags at me was stalled on the job by the colored theatrical people unfriendly, to me." Consequently, it was Nina, not Ethel, who was given the chance to be the first black actress to play a leading role in a Hollywood film. [From Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather, Stephen Bourne (2007)]

While Hollywood was casting dark-skinned black women in all of their "happy-to-be-serving" supporting (or uncredited) roles, they were also laying foundations for their (few) black Leading Ladies. Nina Mae McKinney would arguably (see page 181 for criticism of Oscar Micheaux's casting) set the blueprint for Hollywood's future black Leading ladies (Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, etc.)--and the character of "Chick" would lay the foundation for the "tragic" roles that these women were often offered (characters that would eventually fade away by the late 50's/early 60's, though).

However, I don't want to get into the intricacies of color-coded casting--that's another subject for another day. Instead, I would like to pose a question with the hope of encouraging a lot of discussion in the 'Comments' section. Before I ask this question, keep the following things in mind: The "look" of Chick (and Nina Mae McKinney) is believed to have set the standard for Hollywood's next black Leading Ladies, but while the black community has revered these women--Nina Mae, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, etc.--there has also been criticism of the roles that they've played (tragic mulattoes, "harlots"). With that in mind, I now pose this question:

In your opinion, how would the casting of Ethel Waters in Hallelujah! have changed the course of American history for black women (of all shades and complexions) in Film, Television, Music, and perhaps society in general? 

Ethel Waters


  1. To be honest, I don't think having a dark-skinned woman would have changed the trajectory of our film history. It's like saying, just because Gabourey Sidibe is a heavyset actress, and her and Monique were both nominated for Academy Awards that perhaps Hollywood would then try casting more thick medium-dark complexion women.

    As we've seen, even in the so-called more enlightened liberal days of modern times, that wasn't the case at all. Gabby has been working yeah, but she isn't breaking ground and Monique has taken a break. Really, outside of Octavia Spencer, can we say that then or now that one or two actresses could have really made a difference or shift things?

    Hollywood is forever going to want that olive to honey colored skin tone. It makes you wonder what background they have and allows them to do as Jessica Alba has done for her career, and Vin Diesel too. You can be a light skinned black person in one role, and then play a tanned white person in another. Hollywood values diversity in looks just as they do talent, and if you can pass for white and black, they see nothing but dollar signs.

    1. I unfortunately have to agree. I don't expect any changes to take place. If so, we're all gonna be dead and gone before it happens. Nina was definitely a Hollywood first, so I always wonder "What if...what if...".

      Thanks for commenting (after my thirst tags--you know what I mean lol)!

    2. Personally, and I'm sure I am not the first to say this, I think there is a over reliance of expecting Hollywood to one day wake up and try to make the black market more than a niche market. For let's face it, since the 90s there hasn't been a continuous stream of hit films in which we dominate the casts.

      Much less, there is such a lack of diversity in our roles. It is rare to find an actual drama film all throughout with us in it. Even in Precious they had random moments, and I do mean random, of comedy.

      The only real answer is for all these people we support: The Smiths, Oprah, Perry, Singleton, and all the rest to really try to put our faces on the screen with more diverse roles. Then, we ourselves, us inspiring to be the next generation, need to find ways to get ourselves out there and not to s--- on YouTube or vimeo, but in many ways that is a glass ceiling in my opinion, and we can't box ourselves in that room.


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