How the Camera Sees Color

Exploring Colorism and Identity in Early Hollywood Films

Blockbuster films and television series such as Black Panther and Luke Cage have renewed conversations about colorism and identity in Hollywood.

Colorism, the discrimination against individuals based on their skin tone, has long influenced the opportunities available to African Americans. In response to this discrimination, historically, African Americans often found alternate ways to present themselves. Some actors moved outside the mainstream film industry while others played into stereotypes. The creation of race movies for and by African Americans in the early 1900s sought to offer more complex narratives and roles. The various ways African Americans responded to discrimination shaped the early film industry and documented a legacy of unequal representation.

Lobby card with a man and woman looking at each other.

Lobby card for The Bronze Venus, 1943. 2013.118.96.7

Colorism not only occurs in different racial or ethnic groups but can happen within them as well. Colorism differs from racism in that racism is based on beliefs about the racial inferiority of a group. Racism can include systemic inequality, prejudiced attitudes, and discriminatory acts. Colorism is thought to only have negative implications for individuals of darker skin tone. However, lighter-skinned African Americans have been victims of colorism as well. The effects of colorism have proven to be damaging to the identity of black Americans by leading to internalized oppression in the black community. Moreover, the concept of identity, and how a person presents oneself in order to make a living, is not only an issue that has historically hindered black actors and actresses, but everyday black Americans as well.

The historic absence of African American actors and actresses in leading roles has been evident throughout the history of Hollywood films. When African Americans were cast, lighter skinned actors were preferred for more prominent roles. Roles for darker skinned individuals generally played on or amplified racist stereotypes. This placed both lighter and darker skinned African Americans in a situation where many felt as though they could not simply be black without being categorized. This identity crisis caused many lighter skinned African Americans to make attempts at passing for white in public settings in order to compete for more opportunities, which led to increased tensions in the black community.

Color lobby card with a woman feeding a chained man.

Lobby card for Tamango, 1958. 2013.118.142.7

In Langston Hughes’ 1934 collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, one recurring theme is passing. When passing, black people with light skin tones would be considered as white based on their physical appearance. Passing became increasingly common during the Great Depression. In a stifled economy where it was difficult for whites to find jobs, African Americans found this task to be especially difficult.

In escaping the Jim Crow south, coming north and marrying my white father, she must have thought gaining white privilege was worth the price of losing family ties and her authentic self. The irony was that in gaining white privilege, in passing for white, the onslaught of racism was splayed open to her. Its ugly face could now be shared with her, a ‘white’ woman who would understand and possibly agree.

Gail Lukasik, 2017 Author of White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing

Some African Americans passed for white as a means to either provide for their families, make a decent living, or to get a glimpse of white privilege. In Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks the narrator of the short story “Passing” says, “Ma, some white people certainly don’t like colored people, do they? (If they did, then I wouldn’t have to be passing to keep my good job)." He continues, “When I look at the colored boy porter who sweeps out the office, I think that that’s what I might be doing if I wasn’t light-skinned enough to get by” (Hughes 52).  While the stories in Hughes’ collection were fictional, they were certainly based on the experiences of African Americans in the United States at this time. The story of the Johnston family highlights the trials and tribulations of a family struggling with hiding their true identity in order to pass in society.

Black and white photograph of men and women in formal clothes.

Photograph of the Johnston family, 1949. 2013.118.55

The image above depicts Dr. Albert C. Johnston, his wife Thyra Johnston, and their four children. The 1949 movie Lost Boundaries, was based on the story of Dr. Johnston’s life. Dr. Johnston, a bi-racial radiologist who graduated with honors from the University of Chicago’s Rush Medical School, unintentionally passed for white in the 1930s. After completion of his post-graduate work, Johnston could not find a job that would hire African Americans. Eventually, he was hired at Maine General Hospital in Augusta, Maine, the only place that did not inquire about his race. When he realized his associates and co-workers believed he was white, he maintained the secret of his actual identity for over a decade. His wife, who was one eighth black, understood her husband’s predicament and kept his secret as well. In 1940, the United States Navy recruited Dr. Johnston but suspected him of having “colored blood.” After Dr. Johnston admitted in the investigation to being partly black, the Navy refused him a commission. Stunned by the rejection, Dr. Johnson decided to tell his children about their background. However, this revelation did not impact the Johnson’s role in society. The family continued to live in New Hampshire where Dr. Johnson operated his medical practice into the 1960s.

Lobby card for Lost Boundaries.

Lobby card for Lost Boundaries, 1949. 2013.118.123.1

We never intended to pass for white, it just happened accidentally.

Thyra Johnson

Albert Jr., Dr. Johnston’s son, revealed his family’s story to movie producer Louis de Rochemont a few years after he learned the truth from his parents. De Rochemont used the story as the inspiration for Lost Boundaries. The film depicts prominent white stars Mel Ferrer and Beatrice Pearson in the leading roles without the presence of any African Americans. This fact shows that even in a story about a family who was black, Hollywood producers still felt it was necessary to have an exclusively white cast. Dr. Johnston’s story and the film Lost Boundaries are examples of the strain that passing puts on family relationships and the measures African Americans who passed for white took to ensure their identities remained a secret.

Scene from Lost Boundries when Dr. Johnson is informed that he cannot join the Navy because he is part black and he reveals this to his son.

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For those who were not light skinned enough to pass for white, many African Americans turned to other means of altering their skin tone. Oftentimes, even lighter skinned actresses and actors would have to have their makeup done in a way to make them appear even lighter. While advertisements for race films promoted the fact that there would be an “all colored cast,” lobby card advertisements often made African American actors and actresses not only appear lighter skinned, but almost white. The action of something as simple as lightening an actor’s skin tone proved to have serious implications. As black owned theaters grew, people across the country were exposed to these exaggerated films and advertisements. Many young children and teenagers of darker complexion began to think that it was “bad,” “evil,” or “dirty” to have dark skin, so some turned to harmful chemicals for the purposes of lightening their skin.

As white and a few lighter skinned actors and actresses were the stars of most Hollywood films in the early 1900s, darker skinned individuals had few opportunities to perform on screen. When they did, it was primarily to play on racist stereotypes and preconceived notions about black people. Lincoln Perry, considered by many to be the first African American movie star, is a prime example of how Hollywood often exploited darker skinned individuals to tell a false narrative of how all black people looked and acted. Perry was best known for his stage persona Stepin Fetchit, an incomprehensible, laughing, dancing fool. In real life, Perry was an intelligent man who used the demand for black foolishness and inferiority on the big screen in order to make a living.

Not every dark skinned individual wanted or was able to pass for white. Many black actors and actresses, whether they wanted to be or not, were subjected to skin appearance alterations, including blackface. Blackface is the use of makeup to exaggerate skin tone and facial features used in the entertainment industry to present a stereotypical and racist image. In The Song of Freedom, a movie starring Paul Robeson, the use of blackface darkens the cast’s skin tones throughout the film, including Robeson himself. The goal of these films was to portray African Americans as uncivilized, savage, and comical beings.

When African American audiences grew tired of seeing themselves portrayed in such stereotypical and racist ways, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Between the 1910s and 1950s, African American movie theaters grew in popularity by featuring race movies. Race movies were produced for all black audiences and often featured an all-black cast. Race movies made it a priority to combat the stereotypical roles usually made available to black actors and actresses. Instead, they specialized in portraying black actors and actresses in a way that black viewers could actually relate to.

Poster for Ebony Parade, 1947. 2013.118.31

Oscar Micheaux, a pioneer in the race film industry, directed and produced over forty feature films throughout his career, gaining support from black people across the country. Race movies such as The Homesteader by Micheaux, depicted African Americans in a way that they could realistically see themselves. Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company in 1918, to produce films focused on African American audiences. His most well-known films include Within Our Gates, The Exile, and Lying Lips. Micheaux tackled race relations head on in his films, but even he was criticized by other black Americans for preferring lighter skinned actors and actresses. Although he cast African Americans, many of the stars in Micheaux’s films were very fair skinned. While race films were still influenced by colorism, they did present a greater variety in the depictions of and opportunities for African Americans. The popularity of race films underscores how great the desire was for films showing realistic representations of African Americans.

I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range. My results might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominant characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.

Oscar Micheaux, January 24, 1925 Philadelphia Afro-American

While hundreds of race films were produced in the early twentieth century, they were excluded from mainstream acclaim. Although African Americans responded in creative and resourceful ways to discrimination during this period, colorism in Hollywood remains a pressing issue well into the twenty-first century. Black actors and actresses still find it difficult to find suitable acting roles and opportunities. In the last few years, the discussion about colorism in the film industry has picked up pace across the nation. To understand the tension surrounding African Americans in the film industry and Hollywood, it is important to understand the history of this relationship. Productions such as Black Panther show that we have come a long way in race relations in the film industry, but we certainly have much more work to do.

View objects relating to race films in the NMAAHC Collection

Written by Kye Farrow, Spring 2018 Robert F. Smith Fund Intern

Published on January 10, 2019