By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Gordon Parks/Corbis
It is hard to imagine some of the most revered members of the Harlem Renaissance — that famed black artistic and cultural rebirth of the 1930s — working as hired hands in Hollywood. And yet, legendary essayists, playwrights, poets and novelists such as Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston did in fact leave the East Coast literary and theatrical scene, at various points during the 1930s and ’40s, in an attempt to break into the film industry.
Perhaps it is because we place our heroic literary figures on high pedestals that their scavenging adventures in segregated Los Angeles remain, for the most part, footnotes in their larger biographies. It is shocking to think that the authors of the classics The Blacker the Berry, Not Without Laughter and Their Eyes Were Watching God might have been complicit with Hollywood imagery of pickaninnies, mammies and Toms. But such a myopic view ignores the economic realities of being a black artist. Black writers often accepted small concessions to their demands for greater authenticity onscreen; it was enough, it seemed, to be included in the process. Whether or not the end result was an exemplary representation of black life remained a larger question that mostly went unanswered among those who wedged a foot in Hollywood’s door.
During the 1920s and ’30s, black writers and performers rejoiced in philosophies of the left. Actor and singer Paul Robeson aligned himself with communism and nascent anti-colonialist stirrings in Africa and Asia, while Langston Hughes, already recognized as a leading figure within the Harlem movement, was part of a group of 22 black intellectuals and artists who traveled to the Soviet Union to make Black and White, a film about black steelworkers in Alabama. The project bombed, plagued by cultural and political differences among the collaborators. Yet the venture offers fascinating insight into the kind of film Hughes might have written as opposed to what he would later sell in Hollywood.
Following publication of his book of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, in 1934, the 32-year-old novelist and poet said he was “very eager to break into the film industry.” Drawing from his collection, he pitched Rejuvenation Through Joy, a burlesque tale about a messianic Negro charlatan passing for white, to a contact at Paramount Pictures. (The story was considered by Al Jolson, but rejected.) After a few rough starts, Hughes was relieved to find himself collaborating, in 1938, on script ideas with actor Clarence Muse, then head of the local Negro unit of the Federal Theater Project. Together, they hashed out ideas for independent producer Sol Lesser, the maker of Tarzan movies who, according to film historian Thomas Cripps, had “set out to make his own off-the-rack, B-movie Gone With the Wind.”
After several long days in the Los Angeles Public Library researching the South of the 1840s, Hughes delivered an outline, notes biographer Arnold Rampersad, which he called Dixie, or The Little Master, a vehicle for popular white youth singer Bobby Breen. The concept would eventually become Way Down South (1939). For their efforts in reconstructing plantation life, Hughes and Muse were each offered a flat $150, a fee that Hughes renegotiated at the urging of his literary agent, Maxim Lieber, to $125 apiece, per week, for just over two months.
Although the film received favorable reviews in mainstream and trade publications such as the Los Angeles Timesand Variety, the RKO release was unceremoniously blasted by Hughes’ leftist friends and colleagues, who claimed that it had, as Rampersad writes, “set back the cause of honestly portraying blacks by about a hundred years.” The criticism didn’t surprise Hughes, who certainly understood the implications of pitching stereotypical mammies and faithful “Uncles” to Hollywood. The poet and playwright had compromised his beliefs for a paycheck, no doubt assuaging his guilt with small victories, such as the fact that his film had employed 300 black actors.
“I am hell bent on paying my debts,” he wrote to a friend the year before Way Down Southwas released. “So pray for me that I may grow strong in the power of the Almighty Dollar, for nothing else in this capitalistic world seems to possess the same strength and vigor.” To fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps, he noted: “The bad things I do are the only things that ever make me any money.” With his writer’s fee, Hughes was able to buy his first new suits and shirts in three years and, most important, to pay back several hundred dollars in medical and funeral bills incurred during his mother’s illness, debts that, as he put it, had “worried my soul.”
While Hughes was just getting warmed up in Hollywood (or, rather, waiting outside in the street while one producer lunched without him in an all-white restaurant), another Harlem Renaissance writer, Wallace Thurman, was being hailed for “Sterilization,” an original story about court-ordered sterilizations of the poor drawn from his 1932 novel, The Interne. The story became the independently produced Tomorrow’s Children (1934). Not only did Thurman receive over $250 per week, or what may have been “the highest salary paid a Negro in America,” writes film historian Phyllis Klotman, but he was “immediately signed up for a two-year contract to write [more] films stories.” √£