By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
What’s most interesting about Tomorrow’s Childrenis that it wasn’t a black story at all. Thurman steered clear of race in his “social problem” film, focusing instead on the plight of a chaste white woman who, because of her family’s reliance on government aid, is slated for sterilization. It is likely, as Klotman observes, that the film’s audiences might never even have known that its author was African-American. What Thurman’s future might have held after this film remains a mystery. That same year, the writer best known for his depiction of intraracial color prejudice in his 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry died at age 32 of tuberculosis and chronic alcoholism. In Thurman’s case, the cost of relative success in Hollywood was the erasure of his blackness.
As early as 1929, the NAACP’s Walter White had blasted Negro actors for compliance with stereotypes. In the years leading up to America’s entrance into World War II, White, by then the NAACP’s executive secretary, had made it his mission to bring more black writers to Hollywood by cultivating friendships with influential Hollywood figures such as Wendell Willkie, chairman of 20th Century Fox, as well as actors Bette Davis and James Cagney. With black Americans everywhere calling for a “double victory” against fascism abroad and racism at home, White perceived that the time was ripe to push for racial progress in the movies. One of his greatest successes was The Negro Soldier(1944), which White persuaded the Office of War Information and the Army Department to produce in order to publicize black patriotism and involvement in the war effort.
As it turns out, the groundbreaking anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston would be the last of her peers to venture west. Then 50 years old by most accounts, or as young as 31 by her own, Hurston had received her bachelor of arts in anthropology from Barnard in 1928, and had already completed three books based on her research: Mules and Men, Tell My Horseand The Florida Negro (unpublished). She had also published the novel that would become her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937), optioned in recent years by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and housed at HBO. (According to a Harpo spokesperson, producers are “currently in negotiations for a writer” for the project.)
Having exhausted her resources (which included Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellowships, sponsorship by a wealthy white benefactor and “relief” checks through the Federal Writers’ Project), Hurston moved in 1941 to Los Angeles, where she lived in the home of a friend and worked as a story consultant at Paramount. Like Hughes, Hurston hoped to use her Hollywood fees to fund an autobiography — which she did with the notoriously duplicitous Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Not surprisingly, given its widespread omissions and evasions, there is no mention of her time in Hollywood in the book, nor in any other, apart from Robert E. Hemenway’s 1977 biography.
Even the chief manuscripts librarian who specializes in the Hurston correspondence at the University of Florida at Gainesville was surprised to hear of the writer’s Paramount employment. In her letters, however, it is clear that Hurston was not enthralled with Hollywood. “This job at the Studio is not the end of things for me,” she wrote to one friend. “It is a means.” To another friend, “Have you an ‘in’ with Cecil B. De Mille? I know that I sound ambitious, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I plan to try The Life of Herod the Great, as a drama, and it needs Hollywood. It is a great story, really, and needs to be done. The man had everything, and usually won. He has both Henry VIII and Napoleon tied to a post. With a drama of an extra gang (railroad) [a]nd the two short pieces in your hand, I’m tackling Herod before I start on the newspaper just as sure as you snore. Jack Kofoed, columnist in the Miami Herald, mentioned Orson Welles the other day, as moving from hotel to hotel, nearly all of his money gone, and doing nothing. I wished a great wish, that he could be induced to collaborate on Herod, but knowing him personally and his huge ego, I have been wondering whether to write him a letter. Yes, I’m ambitious, but don’t count me out too soon. I might make it.”
Overall, the history of the Harlem Renaissance writers’ involvement with Hollywood is sketchy at best. Alain Locke, for instance, a former Howard University professor and Rhodes scholar (black America’s first), and editor of the 1925 collection that officially “launched” the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro, offered to serve as a consultant on Disney Studio’s 1944 musical translation of the Uncle Remus stories, Song of the South. Locke asked Disney to contemplate “some carefully critical reactions from representative Negroes in a position to be racially representative and at the same time honestly objective.” Later, he wrote to a friend that the “controversy which has broken out over the script only indicates the bad judgment of not having done something like this at an earlier stage . . . I haven’t heard from Mr. Disney; but want you to know what I wrote him in all good faith.”
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