Louis’ musicality made him an icon that brought public attention to the African American community through a plethora of ways (e.g. live performances, tours, and movie features). While most people can understand and and acknowledge how Louis broke barriers for the African American community in music and film, some find the roles he played to be quite disheartening. However, it is important to understand how growing up in the 20th century affected many people’s life decisions.
In the book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, author Donald Bogle does an exceptional job illustrating the evolution of blacks in film during the 20th century. Identified in chapter 1, Black Beginnings, Bogle covers the common roles played by blacks until the 1920’s: the toms, coons, tragic mulattoes, and mammies.
The evolution of a black character took place in 1903 in the motion picture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, the role of Uncle Tom was played by a white man who portrayed the black character as nameless, slightly overweight, and made up in blackface. The film industry introduced the black character by creating film reproductions of black stereotypes that had existed since the days of slavery and that were already popularized in American life and arts.
In the 1927 remake of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, James B. Lowe played the role of Uncle Tom where he was socially accepted as the “good negro character.” Despite being chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, the Uncle Tom character kept his faith, remained hearty, submissive, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind, much like the Uncle Tom narrative. Also in 1927, the coon narrative was developed as harmless, little screwball creation whose eyes popped, whose hair hair stood on end with the least excitement, and whose antics were pleasant and diverting. This was followed by the mulatto narrative of interracial love, as depicted in the 1912 film, The Debut, where a white man’s wife and his black mistress birthed his children at the same time. Next, the “mammy” narrative, making its debut in 1914 in Coon Town Suffragettes. The mammy character was generally distinguished by her sex and her fierce independence.
Bogle goes on to explain that in transition of blacks on film in the 1930’s.
“Hollywood found a new place for the negro– in kitchens, the laundry rooms, and in pantries. And thus was born the Age of the Negro Servant.”
Thus, Louis began making his appearance on film starting in 1931, playing a servant role in Ex-Flame, Rhapsody in Black and Blue in 1932, then Pennies from Heaven in 1936.
Bogle explains how some felt the servant syndrome admittedly mistreated and exploited black servants and the black servant performer themselves were often criticized by civil rights organizations for accepting such demeaning roles (e.g. W.E.B. Dubois in his book The Soul of Black Folk, explaining minstrelsy as the stereotypical image that most white Americans had of blacks; that blacks were a demonized group that had to be controlled by terror or an idealized group of self-sacrificing Uncle Toms and Mammys).
Bogle also explains how these featured black characters felt that as actors, they had accomplished the almost impossible: that these stereotypes should be recognized as things of beauty and at least joy for the progression that Africans American made in the film industry. I imagine Louis and James B. Lowe would concur with this narrative being that they were both trailblazers; breaking boundaries for blacks in the music and film industry.
Louis and W.E.B. Dubois were born in two different centuries; Dubois towards the end of 19th century and Louis at the beginning of 20th century. Both viewed societal issues differently but it’s important to look at the environment they were both born in. Dubois, born in 1868, when blacks weren’t featured at all in music or film, contrary to Louis, born in 1901, when blacks began their evolution in film shortly after. While some blacks felt that playing roles of coons, toms, or mammies to be disheartening or disgraceful, others, such as Louis and Lowe, viewed it as an opportunity for inclusion in an industry where inclusion certainty did not exist. They were subconsciously opening the door to break the stigmatized barrier placed on our race.