Despite being described as one of the most beautiful women to be booked to sing at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, breaking attendance records at said hotel and many others, and her myriad of other accomplishments, her treatment at some establishments were undeniably the antithesis of beautiful. One prominent example of racism against Dandridge was when she was performing at a Las Vegas hotel. While she was good enough to perform, she was not permitted to use restrooms or the hotel pool. Instead, they gave her a cup to use as a bathroom, and when she just dipped her toe into the pool, they drained and scrubbed it. Even these two examples alone display that while black women with lighter skin were held to a higher regard, to many establishments they were still second-rate. Some of the roles offered to her and subtleties of the scripts reflect this notion as well.
An example of stereotypes in Dandridge’s career is her portrayal of Carmen in the film that propelled her into worldwide fame, Carmen Jones. While Carmen is depicted as more desirable, clever, independent, and in control of her fate than many black female acting roles, throughout the film, she also embodies many stereotypes.
In the beginning, she arrives late for work and is arrested for fighting with the co-worker that turns her in. This bears an eerie semblance to the notorious “colored people time” stereotype, which displays black people as unable to handle the responsibility of showing up on time, and the “angry, violent black woman,” or “Sapphire” stereotype, which displays black women as overbearing and agressive. Her character then seduces Joe, the betrothed sargeant assigned to deliver her to authorities following her arrest and her eyes continue to wander to other men throughout the film, a not so subtle ode to the “Jezebel” figure. At the conclusion of the film, she is strangled to death in a fit of rage by Joe for her unfaithfulness when she strays throughout the movie. While the movie helped launch her into world fame, in actuality it did not allow her to stray very far from common stereotypes of African American women, namely the “Jezebel.”
Another peculiar example of how racism impacted the portryal of black people in film was Dandridge’s interracial relationship with actor John Justin in Island in the Sun. At the end of the clip from the movie, hyperlinked below, when they are slow-dancing together and it appears as if they will kiss, instead they awkwardly rub cheeks. One could argue perhaps that they did not know each other well yet. However, the two were dating throughout the film and Justin even explicitly says that he is in love with her, yet the two do not once they show any type of affection at any part of the film. In the context of American culture, especially in film, a loving relationship with no affection whatsoever is highly unusual. It is not because this particular film is extra conservative either– at 1:26:00 in the full film (hyperlinked to the left), another couple, both individuals white, kiss like in any other movie. The lack of interracial affection in this movie is not an anomaly for Dandridge either. In just about every onscreen interracial relationship she had, any sign of affection was rewritten or cut. Dandridge herself quotes a possible reason for this.
“America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner. My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband, the same as other women.” ~ Dorothy Dandridge
Although onscreen Dandridge was in some interracial relationships, off screen interracial relationships were essentially taboo in the 1950s, and interracial affection between white men and black women was only displayed in media in the context of poverty, servitude, and worse yet–rape. The lack of a status quo for positive interracial relationships translated on screen. This lack of a status quo would also contribute to the spiraling downfall of her fluorishing career.
A Tragic End to a Beautiful Tale
Later in her career, Dandridge started running out of films to act in. The fact that she did many dramas and romantic films, that interracial relationships were taboo, and that there were very few black actors in this area (and the main ones that were had already co-starred with her) reduced her opportunities as well. She did not receive many offers, and although in honesty she preferred scripts with social significance to the immoral, sultry roles she was more commonly offered, the primary roles available were more demeaning ones, like the roles in her last two films. In Porgy and Bess (1959), she plays a drug-addicted prostitute. In Tamango (1959), she plays an enslaved mistress to the Dutch captain of a slave ship. The conclusion of Tamango is like a microcosm of the wavering progession and regression of the perception of blacks in the media and the struggle for civil rights– first, she grew to fame largely in the “Jezebel” archetype, and was portrayed as a relatable human being in Bright Road as a caring schoolteacher and performed at glamourous venues and integrated some of them. But in the end, she was relegated back down to the roles of a drug-addicted prostitute, and to an enslaved mistress, whose life is tragically ended along with several other enslaved individuals by a literal cannon ball of racism and greed at the conclusion of the film. To better illustrate the intersection of colorism and racism, in the next blog I will juxtapose the legacies of Dandridge and McDaniel with the legacy of a famous woman with striking similarities to Dandridge– Marilyn Monroe.