On the left are silhouettes of three Black individuals in red, green, and yellow. Next to them in all capitals it says "Living Black History" The background is black.

by Erin Witt, Adult Services/Reference Librarian, Ives Main Library

As we enter further into the 21st century, actors who lit up screens during cinema’s Golden Age transition from living legends into legends of time gone by. Following the death of iconic actor Sidney Poitier in January 2022, the world of cinema began to mourn not only for his passing, but the greater loss of so many Golden Age entertainers who are no longer with us. For Black History Month, we at the NHFPL wanted to shine a light on some of the Black actors and entertainers who graced the silver screen during this era known as the “Golden Age”. The exact years of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” vary, but are generally agreed upon to cover the late 1920’s up until the late 1960’s.

Sidney Poitier after winning the “Best Actor” for Lillies of the Field at the 1964 Academy Awards. He was the first African American man to win the award.   

A black and white photo of Sidney Poitier holding his Oscar award.

This expansive era of filmmaking ushered milestones in creativity and technological progress, but behind the façade, not all was as “golden” as it seemed. The lack of equal opportunity casting often forced Black actors into stereotypical and limiting roles, such as portraying maids, comic relief types, or uncredited bit parts with few lines.  

Systematic racism within the film industry and the nation at large also prevented many of these talented actors from achieving top billing or winning leading roles. Due to this, a few of the films featured in the display gain their importance not because of the leading actors who starred in the picture, but because of the supporting or minor scenes performed by Black actors. These scenes, no matter how brief, offer a glimpse into the humor, skill, charm, and poise of the actors who could have shined if given the opportunity.  

Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in a scene from Carmen Jones.

Despite the limitations and barriers faced, strides of progress were achieved during this era. Hattie McDaniel was the first African American woman to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Etta Moten Barnett’s emotional performance of “My Forgotten Man” in the film Gold Diggers of 1933 touched the hearts of audiences across America, including a powerful person in Washington D.C. At President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s behest, Barnett performed the song at his birthday celebration, becoming the first African American to perform at the White House in the 20th century and the first to perform there in over 50 years. Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as the titular role in Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen. The film also has significance because it features an all-Black cast, including other stars such as Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey.  

Here at the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, we have a robust DVD collection that spans decades of cinema, across numerous genres. Nestled amongst the stacks are films that feature some of the great Black actors and entertainers and they deserve to be given their own spotlight. Check out the display down on the ground level near the Tech Center at the Ives Main Library to browse our selection of films we think you should see! As we lose more and more of these iconic greats, it becomes necessary to watch the performances that cemented their status amongst the stars. These stories are timeless, moving, and just as entertaining as they were during their initial releases. Actors such as the Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Canada Lee, Harry Belafonte, Hattie McDaniel, Eartha Kitt, and others light up the silver screen.  

It also emphasizes the need to reevaluate and re-watch classics with an eye on these Black actors, especially if they appear in supporting or uncredited roles. Mildred Pierce is rightly known for being the defining role in Joan Crawford’s career, but if you watch with a keen eye, you’ll be impressed with Butterfly McQueen’s role as Lottie. Though she appears in multiple scenes and has many speaking lines, her performance was uncredited.

Butterfly McQueen as “Lottie” in Mildred Pierce

McQueen sparkles with a refreshing humor, using her limited screen time to infuse scenes heavy with tension and unknowing with a lightness. McQueen resented the limited film opportunities that kept her as maids and housekeepers and would eventually transition to television. Even though she had a few scenes, her charming personality and distinct voice make an impression long after the credits roll.  

Our physical DVD collection may have enough to get you started for your next movie marathon, but if you prefer to stream your movies or don’t have access to a DVD player, fear not! With your New Haven Free Public Library card, you have free access to digital streaming services provided by Hoopla and Kanopy. Need a library card? Visit any of our branches and get signed up today! 

Hoopla allows you to digitally access movies, tv shows, and e-books, and Kanopy grants you access to thousands of movies and documentaries with ease. Films such as Paris Blues featuring Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll, The French Way starring Josephine Baker, and Till the Clouds Roll By featuring Lena Horne are only a few clicks away! 

Want to watch on the big screen? The Fair Haven Branch is screening Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates on Monday, February 9th and Carmen Jones Thursday, February 16th. Both films start at 6:00 pm in Fair Haven’s program room, so stop by and join other movie lovers! Contact the branch or check out our website for more information.  

As the gloomy chill of February draws us back into the warmth of our homes and onto our couches looking for something new to watch, considering making your next movie night a golden one. 

Celebrate Living Black History systemwide all month long at NHFPL. Details here: https://nhfpl.org/celebrate-living-black-history-with-the-new-haven-free-public-library-this-february/