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By Laurence Washington
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Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood
By Donald Bogle
Our Rating: A
Donald Bogle's enthralling book, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, is an insightful behind-the-scene tour of one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets - the struggles, social lives and love affairs of black actors and actresses in early Hollywood.
Spanning from 1912 into the late 1950s, the book offers anecdote-laden chapters of the early black film pioneers - actors such as Stepin Fetchit, "who'll steal every scene from you," according to legendary actor Lionel Barrymore; Dorothy Dandridge, the black queen of Hollywood; and others who blazed a trail for today's stars.
Bogle is a New York University professor, film historian and novelist. He begins with Madame Sul-Te-Wan, a struggling single parent and one of the few black actresses who managed to land small roles in feature films at that time.
Born Nellie Conley from Louisville, Ky., Madame Sul-Te-Wan was befriended by director D.W. Griffith, who had been labeled a racist because of his racially charged film Birth of a Nation.
In contrast to Griffith's reputation, the pair maintained a close friendship after Birth of a Nation, in which Madame Sul-Te-wan appeared. Griffith helped her find other acting jobs in motion pictures.
By the 1920s, black actors, especially children who joined the Our Gang cast, and youngster Earnest Morrison ("Sunshine Sammy"), started receiving more roles as Hollywood became a boomtown and more studios opened, according to Bogle.
Ernest Morrison, known as "Sunshine Sammy," dressed for succes
as America's most famous black child star of the early 1920s.
At that time, many black adult performers were still cast as faceless extras. But as the black press began writing articles about those talented performers, more actors began getting work toward the end of the decade.
The '30s and '40s brought larger roles for blacks with the emergence of black casting agents and the influx of eastern talent: the Nicholas Brothers, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (the first real black box-office star).
The '30s also saw the birth of black nightspots frequented by Hollywood's movers and shakers, and composer Duke Ellington's theater show Jump For Joy, a musical with sketches and satire aimed at eliminating the stereotypes Hollywood had painted of blacks.
Ahead of its time, Jump For Joy was written from the point of view of blacks looking at whites. Although it lasted only three months, the mainstream press raved about it. Many who saw the show began to see black entertainers in a different light.
The '50s ushered in the era of the new black Hollywood. Bogle writes that "during the Eisenhower era, Hollywood, black and white, was ultimately redefined by three major black stars."
Those stars were: the suave sophisticated Nat King Cole, who rarely made a false move; Sammy Davis Jr., who crossed social/racial class boundaries in a daring way; and Dorothy Dandridge, the greatest star symbol of all.
They were essential to the new way black Hollywood lived - and the way it viewed itself, writes Bogle. "Dandridge and Davis . . . represented a bridge between the old and the new black Hollywood," he notes.
Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams is an enlightening documentation for film fans and students - or anyone else interested in how black stars lived and socialized off-screen, while walking the racial lines drawn by the movie industry.
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