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 Times and 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 South was 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.” ã
What’s most interesting about Tomorrow’s Children is 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 Horse and 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.”
Hughes, Hurston and Locke often differed sharply in their opinions about “authentic” Negro representation — opinions that were further clouded by a need to appease whites. Locke reproached Hurston for her use of black vernacular, and both Hurston and Hughes were, at various times, dismissed as being insufficiently militant for the black cause. All three enjoyed the patronage of Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy, white society matron, and each maneuvered and schemed to maintain the position of favored “pet.”
Each of the Harlem Renaissance writers left Los Angeles disappointed. “Hollywood,” Hughes wrote years after the Way Down South fiasco, “has spread in exaggerated form every ugly and ridiculous stereotype of the deep South’s conception of Negro character.” In a 1957 speech to the National Assembly of Authors and Dramatists, he maintained, “We Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives . . . There are libraries in our country that will not stock a book by a Negro writer . . . There are American magazines that have never published anything by Negroes. There are film studios that have never hired a Negro writer.”
Like all writers, past and present, the Harlem Renaissance artists weighed a desire for free expression against the unceasing demands of bill collectors. And like today’s artists, they too learned that Hollywood was not yet ready to present the full spectrum of black humanity. It must have been a lonely existence — to be black, creative and intoxicated by the power of one’s own quiet imagination. How many days were wasted with worry about how to make ends meet? Hughes had files full of story ideas right up to his death in 1967. And yet even he, who may have been the first black writer in this country to actually make a living from his work, was locked out of Hollywood. In the end, Hughes’ stay at the Los Angeles Clark Hotel on Central Avenue (the only place he could find that would board a black man) ended like Hurston’s and so many others’ before and after them — with a dream deferred.