Hazel Scott: a career curtailed.

Author:Mack, Dwayne
Position::Biography
 
FREE EXCERPT

On the evening of 14 April 1950, the DuMont Network televised a fifteen-minute musical variety program featuring Hazel Scott. A beautiful, world-renowned African American pianist, singer, and actress, Scott was married to Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the outspoken U.S. Representative from Harlem, New York City, and charismatic pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. At the opening of Scott's show, the camera scanned across a city skyline, then revealed a set resembling the living room of an elegant penthouse. "There sat the shimmering Scott at her piano, like an empress on her throne," wrote film and television critic Donald Bogle, "presenting at every turn a vision of a woman of experience and sophistication." Scott's show was the first to feature an African American female host. (1)

Even for a celebrity of her caliber, Scott, like most African Americans during the early phase of the Cold War, was no stranger to Jim Crow segregation. She, however, acted with dignity while promoting American patriotism and racial integration, and denouncing communism. In short, Scott was an astonishing "sultry song stylist" who created "her own concept of black pride and steadfastly adhered to it." (2)

During the era of legal segregation, African Americans often opposed racial discrimination by using what political anthropologist James C. Scott has described as "infrapolitics." In isolated incidents they challenged white racist authority and policies through subtle forms of resistance. (3) These interactions rarely received overt or noticeable attention, but nevertheless represented important moral or personal victories. In contrast, James Scott's other term, "public transcript," the "shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate," is a better term for Hazel Scott's defiance of racism and the Cold War purges. (4) She waged a personal crusade through the entertainment industry, the federal court system, and even a congressional subcommittee. Consequently, records reveal that racial discrimination and the communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s curtailed Scott's entertainment career in the United States.

STAR OF STAGE AND SCREEN

Scott was born on 11 June 1920, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Her father, R. Thomas Scott, was a respected black scholar and college professor, and her mother, Alma Long Scott, was a musician from an elite local family. In 1924 the Scotts migrated to the U.S. and settled in Harlem, where Hazel, a musical prodigy, studied classical piano with Paul Wagner, a professor at the Julliard School of Music. (5) In the late 1930s and early 1940s her career blossomed, as she became a regular performer earning a weekly salary of $2,000 at New York's elegant dinner club Cafe Society. Her husband once fondly referred to her as the "darling of Cafe Society." She "had already broken every show business record for a one-star show at a supper club," and she was its "grande vedette. No one came to challenge her domain," Powell exclaimed. (6) Scott became famous "for jazzing the classics, for turning the passionate chords of Rachmaninoff" into a sizzling boogie-woogie. She also gave popular tunes a classical twist. (7) Entertainment critic James Agee, however, once condemned her for playing "niggery" boogie-woogie. (8) Despite the criticism, "Scott--with her intelligence, her hauteur, her worldliness--was generally considered a progressive symbol for African American female entertainers." (9) In 1938 her talent brought her to Broadway, where she performed in the musicals Singing Out the News and, four years later, Priorities of 1942. The 1940s were thrilling years for Scott, with appearances in major Hollywood film productions, including Something to Shout About, I Dood It, and The Heat's On in 1943, Broadway Rhythm in 1944, and Rhapsody in Blue in 1945.

Scott's career blossomed before the modern Civil Rights Movement. In the 1930s and 1940s entertainers such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong challenged Jim Crow segregation. According to historian Harvey G. Cohen, Ellington, for example, did advocate civil rights in the conventional activist sense, "but contributed much to that cause, most of it unrecognized because it lay outside the annals of racial protest." (10) Cohen was writing about Duke Ellington, but his analysis applies to Scott as well. When she became a celebrity in the 1940s, movie producers offered African American actors only stereotypical roles. "Before the civil rights movement made organized protest common for African Americans to register their desire for equal rights," Hazel Scott, like Ellington, defied racial stereotypes, portraying a positive screen and stage image, thus improving the opportunities for other African Americans in the entertainment industry. (11)

Scott's efforts to maintain a positive screen image reflected the improved socioeconomic circumstances for some African American women. According to historian Karen Anderson, "wartime demand gave African American women their first important break out of work in agriculture and domestic service. They responded with alacrity, moving to war-boom communities and entering the labor force in large numbers." (12) Scott's positive image reflected this improved labor environment for black women. While in Hollywood, she refused to accept "the old submissive and secondary roles" that the movie industry reserved for African American actors. Film executives allowed Scott to construct a dignified on-screen persona for several reasons. (13) During his tenure as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, Walter White insisted that movie studios eliminate domestic or buffoon roles for black actors. (14) He urged movie executives to create "more realistic Negro characters" and to "broaden the roles in which Negroes are pictured." (15)

Along with pressure from the NAACP on the film industry, the military wanted Hollywood to entertain and boost the morale of African American troops during World War II. Moreover, the African American press decried negative portrayals of African Americans in films and "mourned the dead end to which Hattie McDaniel's Oscar seemed to point." At the same time, other talented entertainers, including Ethel Waters, Katherine Dunham, and Lena Home, refused to accept roles that they regarded as demeaning. (16)

Wendell Willkie, who served as both chairman of the board of Twentieth Century Fox and Special Counsel to the NAACP, also applied pressure on studio executives. In 1942 Willkie explained to them the "offensiveness of racial stereotypes and their danger to the war effort." Together, Willkie and Walter White told film executives to portray "the Negro as a normal human being and an integral part of human life and activity." A number of Hollywood's established black actors, however, "feared change because the old stereotypes were their meal tickets." (17)

The internal and external pressure to improve the image of black characters compelled Scott to distinguish herself from black actors such as Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, and Nina Mae McKinney by refusing to accept the traditional maid, mammy, or prostitute roles that directors offered to black actresses. Instead, she always appeared in movie musicals as herself, playing the piano or patronizing a nightclub. Scott was always dressed regally in sequined gowns and exuded elegance, sophistication, and tasteful sensuality. (18) Unfortunately, southern censors did not want to offend white audiences with the image of a strong and independent African American, and, following common practice, they removed Scott's scenes. (19) Although racist stereotypes of African Americans remained popular among most white audiences, Scott never tried to temper her militancy.

CHALLENGING RACIAL STEREOTYPES

According to film historian Jim Pines, the "radical and outspoken" Scott temporarily brought production of the movie The Heat's On to a halt because she resented the script's one-dimensional portrayal of African Americans. She refused to perform a scene until the other "black women in the film were given proper costumes and not depicted seeing their sweethearts off to war wearing dirty Hoover aprons." (20) As a result, Hollywood executives curtailed her film career, blacklisting her. After her Columbia Pictures contract ended in 1945, she failed to land another acting role until the 1958 French film Disorder in the Night. While her action was "significant," as Pines argued, it is difficult to determine the "effect on the overall trend in racial depictions." (21) However, we do know that for a brief interlude during the late 1940s the image of the African American characters improved in Hollywood cinema. The 1949 films Pinky and Home of the Brave dealt openly with the impact of white racism on African Americans. Unfortunately, by 1951 the racist attitudes of southern moviegoers, as well as the "competition from television and the loss of foreign markets, combined to make progress short-lived." (22)

Less than a decade after Scott's informal protests, Walter White argued that the "continued picturization of Negroes, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans as either savages, criminals, or mental incompetents was doing ... incalculable harm, both abroad and in the United States." Other critics also condemned the movie industry. Poet and novelist Langston Hughes, for example, maintained that "Hollywood's ridiculous stereotype program" permitted a huge pool of "Negro talent to remain idle." According to Hughes, the industry still portrayed African Americans as inarticulate servants, "grinning, happy-go-lucky, half stupid." (23)

Scott even challenged racist attitudes regarding her concert appearances. She was one of the first black artists who refused to perform for segregated audiences in the South. (24) Scott's approach to integration mirrored that of her onetime employer and manager, Barney Josephson, the white owner of Cafe Society. Josephson, according...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP