Film

Deriding Desire: Dorothy Dandridge and the Raced and Gendered '50s

In 1957, Academy Award-nominated actress Dorothy Dandridge found herself at the center of a smear campaign that betrayed the patriarchal and racial politics of Hollywood and the US at large. The '50s were far from calm.

In the May 1957 edition of Confidential Magazine, Academy Award-nominated African American actress Dorothy Dandridge found herself at the center of a smear campaign that seized upon and invigorated fears of interracial relations. The article, titled “What Dorothy Dandridge Did in the Woods", elaborately discussed an encounter between the actress and a white bandleader.

While the alleged dalliance had presumably occurred several years earlier on the California-Nevada border near Lake Tahoe, the magazine broke the scandal with a vigor that readily revealed a racially skewed perspective. The story asserted that “tan songstress” Dandridge was on a back-to-nature quest in the woods when she encountered a “pale” man, later identified as Daniel Terry. Dandridge, driven by her natural sexual appetite, then supposedly seduced him, or as the writer omnisciently poses her considerations, if “the birds were doing it and the bees were doing it, shouldn’t they?”

In the story, and oft throughout her career, Dandridge was characterized as promiscuous, immoral, and driven by natural impulse, i.e., the direct opposite of the white female. Other articles published were titled “Dorothy Dandridge—her 1,000 Lovers” in popular African American tabloid Hep and “Why Dorothy Dandridge is Afraid of Marriage” in photojournalistic magazine, Sepia (answer: She does not want to marry a black man but fears a backlash for an interracial union). In addition, and not unrelated, she was also labeled a socialist.

This was by no means an unusual pattern. African-American performers, especially females, were heavily scrutinized by the dominant institutions, and concerns about their sexual mores often went hand in hand with allegations about their political affiliations. The triple bind that separated them from a dominant position (race, class, gender) made them almost inherently suspects for subversiveness.

In fact, Confidential—which quickly emerged as Hollywood’s foremost nightmare after its inception in December 1952—had acquired a large readership by courting controversy through its policing of mixed-race dalliances, especially involving African-American women. It infamously branded Josephine Baker “a Communist” and accused her of playing the race card for her own gain after she protested a racially-motivated refusal of service in a New York restaurant. Words of choice to refer to Baker and Dandridge betrayed a racial and patriarchal investment, and included “suave siren”, “glamorous chick”, “sensuous,” “a pushover”, and even “tricks”.

The fact that many high-profile African American artists, including Dandridge, Baker, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison had expatriated to Europe—specifically cultural hub Paris—or had even travelled to the Soviet Union, like Paul Robeson, and earlier Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, did nothing to appease the stereotype of black as subversive. The stereotype had been meticulously and in part subconsciously constructed by the white media, that constantly cast black characters in the same roles, characterized by Donald Bogle as toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies and bucks in his book of the same title (2001, Continuum Publishing Group).

Indeed, the only African American Oscar-winner at the peak of Dandridge’s career was Hattie McDaniel, who had taken home Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind 1940. In 1954, Dandridge became the first black nominee for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in Carmen Jones. As this film indicated, African American actresses were slowly allowed a more diverse palate of roles, yet remained constrained as the perpetual other.

This intersection of race, class, and gender concerns was not confined to the realm of gossip tabloids, but also made its way into official government decisions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation amassed a report on Dandridge after an anonymous source provided them with a letter dated 23 July 1952, that evidenced her readership of the People’s World, a communist newspaper. In it, Dandridge defends herself against numerous accusations of affiliations with communism, and states that she has “at no time been active politically” and that her “sole interest is a successful career and aiding my people.”

The comment is telling; while African American women emerged on the cultural scene, political engagement was a faux pas. The only way to carve out a space in the public eye was to present oneself as apolitical, an irony that is hard to ignore, as “aiding [her] people” is in itself a political commitment that was only attainable in a visible function.

The vicious circle that African American performers then found themselves in was perpetuated by classed, raced, and gendered stratification. These tension over these was no longer just the concern of the US, as the '50s has reframed all discussions in a global perspective. Dandridge’s career is another incarnation of Bercovitch’ American jeremiad, the personification of the indignation over the gap between the ideal society and its current incarnation The American people worked towards an ideal social constitution, but tension over what the real state of society represents made them work towards different goals.

With rampant racism and patriarchalism paralyzing domestic participation and the rhetoric of equality and liberty being espoused on an international level, '50s America had become Janus-faced. Its racial and gender hierarchies were the staunch remnants of a nation built upon white supremacy and patriarchy, while the its future role in the world paradoxically depended upon the extent to which the United States could convince Africa and Asia’s decolonizing peoples that this was exactly what it did not represent.

In other words, the future of the US and its capitalist economic order could only be safeguarded from communism by demonstrating that Americans were morally fit to assume world leadership. The result was the type of repression that would become widely associated with the period, and was especially aimed at containing all those that threatened the liberal consensus.

The imperatives for doing so were as much global as domestic. The Cold War was never just a double act of the United States and the Soviet Union. The aftermath of World War II, the move towards decolonization in Africa and Asia, and especially the drive towards containment shaped American thinking. In the '50s, not coincidentally, a vast body of literature addressed “the race question”. UNESCO published statements in 1950 and a revised version in 1951 on what exactly race was.

In 1950, a select group of scholars and scientists wrote that “for all social purposes, race is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage…to recognize [the unity of mankind] and to act accordingly is the first requirement of the modern man” (UNESCO, 1950). The rise of actresses such as Dandridge to prominence and the ambiguous evaluations reveal the conundrum at heart of the American dominant: global rule could only be attained through domestic integration, no matter how divisive the matter remained.

These changing appraisals of race enabled racial fluidity, but only as long as the central binary of white/non-white, dominant/subordinate, did not become endangered. This is tied in to the fact that African American actresses had no qualms about and were often asked to portray women of a different color, most frequently East-Indian or Caribbean in film such as Island in the Sun (1957) and Tamango (1958) in Dandridge’s case. She joyously remarked that she had landed her “first Indian princess”, which led Los Angeles Times columnist Hal Humphrey to observe that she had finally had her “major breakthrough”, even though she had already been nominated for an Academy Award for portraying an African American woman. He also added that now she might one day “be able to work up to playing an octoroon (one-eight Negro)” (C15).

This was the limit of mobility; they might play characters who are visually indistinguishable from white, but to play a white character remained one bridge too far. The problem was not visual, but imaginary/of the mind. Within the group of racial others, race was accepted as constructed, but black and white remained divided by the ideology of biology.

Today, the problem is still not resolved, at least not entirely. People of color, and especially women, receive a far lesser percentage of screen time—especially in leading roles—than they makeup in the entire population. Both qualitatively and quantitatively, Hollywood has remained white and male, as the Academy Award voting committee so poignantly demonstrates every year. But with movies like The Help and Precious garnering praise the past few years, and with actresses of color gracing the red carpet and the stage at many an award show, change might seem slow, but it is definitely steady.


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