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Before Zoe There Was Fredi... (Movie Makeup History)

by Sergio
October 28, 2012 1:42 PM
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Fredi Washington

As a trivia follow-up to those new pictures of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, a commenter asked if there was a precedent for this - that is, putting a black actress in dark makeup and prosthetics to play a black woman.

Tambay also asked Emmanuel and I if we knew of such an example, and the only one I could think of, without the prosthetics however, was Fredi Washington in Paul Robeson's 1933 film The Emperor Jones.

Washington, who died in 1994 at the age of 90, was one of those many black actresses who never found any real place or real lasting success in Hollywood. During her brief time as a Hollywood actress, she appeared in only a few films, the most famous of which was her role as Peola Johnson in the 1934 film, Imitation of Life, in which she plays Louise Beaver's daughter who passes for white.

Ironically, in the more well-known 1959 remake of the film, the role of the daughter, renamed Sarah, was played by white actress, Susan Kohner.

But in Jones, Washington has the small role of Undine, a character who has an affair with Robeson's Brutus. However, she was so light-skinned that the producers actually darkened her skin in the film, for fear that audiences might mistake her for a white woman who's involved with Robeson, obviously a black man.

Take a look at Washington in the film:

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  • lorriegay | October 30, 2012 1:20 PMReply

    since the "hook" here is Zoe Saldana (an actress I adored and respected until this extraordinary missstep)...Fredi did not FLOURISH in film as a result of her lighter complexion. She needed to darken up to work whereas Zoe had absolutely had a broader career because of her ambiguity.

    For me in relation to the Nina Simone role, the biggest problem is not JUST complexion. Nina wrote her songs and had a specific view of herself in relation to life and LOVE as a result of her physicality. Not merely her color...but her features and bone structure in a society that was not, and in many ways is still now, ready to embrace and assure beauty. Zoe would need to get an entire surgical makeover to disguise her delicate and perfect bone structure. We're not just talking Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose playing Virginia Woolf here.

  • CareyCarey | October 28, 2012 7:37 PMReply

    Good catch Sergio. Your mention of Fredi Washington, and both versions of Imitation of Life, highlights, as someone said "Eighty years later we are still dealing with the complexion issue" and "The burden of representation". First, it's important to note that Susan Kohner was not a "white actress" per-se, her parents ( Mother, Lupita Tovar) was from Mexico and her father was born in the Czech Republic. Susan's brother's name is Pancho. In respect to Fredi Washington, it's been said that she actually left the movie business because of the "politics" (black and white) and the types of roles she was being offered. She went on to be an advocate for women's rights. In reference to the 1959 version of "Imitation", as I mentioned in another post, I recently watched it (last week). It had bonus features which included an interview of Juanita Moore, the black actress who received an Oscar nomination for her role as Annie Johnson, Peola's mother. Two things of note, in the original 1934 version, Annie Johnson was actually the business partner of the lead character. In the 1959 film, she was simply the maid. Hmmm, why the change? Well, in my opinion, aside from the fact that the film was a starring vehicle for the return of Lana Turner, the topics of race and politics were at a new threshold in the 50's. Consequently, black "images", as they are today, were being used to fit those in power. Yes, a huge topic for discussion, today and yesterday. Anyway, Juanita Moore said for 2 years she didn't get another offer from Hollywood, and thus, her words: "I had to go back to the chitlin circuit"

  • Gigi Young | November 2, 2012 11:54 PM

    Ha, thanks. I watch a lot of old movies and after getting over the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood, I started to pay attention to how the black actors were portrayed, as well as how black characters--when they were given their own storylines--were as well. It's not simply the Stepin Fetchit, watermelon-eating, Mammy stuff we tend to think of. Though Hollywood did keep those old minstrel show stereotypes alive, the disappearance of black actors from Hollywood films after the '50s due to the Civil Rights movement is unsettling to see, particularly when the new medium that old Hollywood celebs were jumping into--television--had little room for them. So it was a double-edged sword for black actors by the time Lana Turner's Imitation of Life rolled around--look at Juanita Moore's filmography on IMDb! Guest spots here and there from the 60s-80s (when the old stars began dying), but nowhere near as consistent as her white counterparts!

  • CareyCarey | October 29, 2012 6:29 PM

    WOW Gigi, you killed this. I watched both versions in the same week. In the 1959 version, as I said, there were bonus features. Along with the Juanita Moore interview, it included commentary by a gentleman who I guess was a film critic of note ( I can't remember his name). He said he had joined Juanita in several discussion on the film and had shown it throughout the world. But check this, he said he could not understand why anyone would prefer the 1934 version over the 1959 (btw, he was a white man). But I have to agree with you, I too prefer '34. I also agree with your assessment. Yes, we can't minimize the fact that this was hand picked for Lana Turner to shine. Heck, she had 43 costume changes, all displaying her in Hollywood glamour. But the dynamics of the lead's relationships from '34 to '59 did have a subtle yet significant change from Fannie Hurst's novel. Although Juanita's character was less "mammy-fied", Louise Beaver's Delilah was more in line with a person who could actually be someone's friend, not merely their maid. And for me, those dynamics rang true in how each lead actress ( Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner) played their parts. I could actually believe - and felt -- the hurt Claudette displayed upon losing a dear friend and family member. On the other hand, the commentator said there wasn't a dry eye in the house while viewing the scene of Ms. Turner crying over Annie Johnson. Well, I didn't feel it. In any event, I don't know if the writers intended to give us a portrait of a strong single black mother, but they sure let us know, over and over again, that Annie Johnson was a maid. To illustrate that point, remember the scene where Peola served the guest? To show her disgust at living as servants, she put on her best southern mammy routine. Which, again, as you noted, was not the gist of the Fannie Hurst novel. On the acting tip, my nod goes to all the actors in 1934 version. Even the daughters (white & black) and the lover were much more convincing to me.

  • Gigi Young | October 29, 2012 5:17 AM

    The change was because the 1959 version was a Lana Turner vehicle, whereas the 1934 version was about Fannie Hurst's novel (that is, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and whites and black). The writers/producers also wanted to tone down Delilah Johnson's (Louise Beavers) super subservient demeanor in '34 by making Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) a poor single mother who pools her resources with poor single mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner). However, as seen in the '59 version, the power dynamics end up even more skewed. As least Delilah was a housekeeper when she met up with Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), so her housekeeping for Bea and Jessie, and remaining a servant throughout the film, was a given. Annie beginning on somewhat equal terms with Lora, but then turning into her servant, is rather exasperating because the writers' thought they were showcasing a modern (1950s) portrait of a strong single black mother. For that reason alone, I prefer the 1934 version in spite of Delilah's characterization--it feels less obtuse and patronizing.

  • bondgirl | October 28, 2012 6:25 PMReply

    Same casting standards as today. smh

  • Ivory Jeff Clinton | October 28, 2012 6:09 PMReply

    The change in complexion is not drastic in Saldana's case. Fredi Washington was very light. Saldana is not. Actually, by old-school, "Our Kind of People," brown-paper-bag standards, her complexion at all. Come to think of it, a cover story on her in Latina magazine described her skin-tone as "chocolate" -- and I'm sure it didn't mean white chocolate. I think her long, straight hair and the fact that she's a Latina -- which, as has been pointed out on this site, is an ethnicity and not a race -- makes people see her as fairer-skinned than she really is. It "scores" her "light-skinned points," as a friend of mine says. Kinda the way some have the misperception of Halle Berry, who's actually medium-toned and just-barely-light, as being light, bright and damn near white because she happens to have a white mother. -

  • IJC | November 6, 2012 5:27 PM

    *who COULD do so

  • IVORY JEFF CLINTON | November 6, 2012 5:14 PM

    *Where I said "complexion at all," I mean to say that by those standards, Saldana's "complexion is not light at all." @BONDGIRL: Exactly. @BOOMSLANG: Chill! Ain't nobody bein' arrogant. Lol. In writing that I was thinking, for example, of a black woman who told me that her light-skinned grandmother, as a young woman ca. early '40s, from Tennessee went to visit her boyfriend's family, filled with light-skinned blacks, in Louisiana, and they were disappointed that her skin-tone was not fair enough to pass for white. They only wanted him to marry someone who couple do so. People like that definitely wouldn't consider Saldana light. That's whose mentality I was referring to. I'm fully aware that there are various shades OF light, brown, dark, etc. -

  • Boomslang | October 29, 2012 10:58 AM

    @ivory @ bondgirl

    maybe because the 2 of you assume there is only shade of light skin . Its quite arrogant to assume because you perceive a specific skin tone differently than others , you've got the most accurate black-o-meter.

    Halle Berry could be darker than she is , but its obvious that she does not have the full african features regular black people have.This is what makes her marketable as the safe sometimes black girl.

    Everytime this discussion comes up , 90% of shadow posters completely ignore the fact that BANTU features are the key characteristic that render someone's ethnicity black ; and its not just in the face. the entire phenotype and physical structure. You lot focuse so much on the amount of melanin as if to be black your genesis has to be caucasian. This is insulting .

    Washington certainly looked white but I'd be suprised if other physical characteristics didn't reveal other characteristics of her bantu heritage.

  • bondgirl | October 28, 2012 6:29 PM

    You're right. People only see her as light-skinned because she speaks Spanish, and her parents aren't self-identifying as Black American. Kerry Washington is fairer than Zoe.

  • AO | October 28, 2012 5:09 PMReply

    Eighty years later we are still dealing with the complexion issue where a light complexion Black woman is more employable in Hollywood than her darker complexion sister, even if her lighter skin has to be darkened.

    What is so ironic in this situation of using Ms. Zaldana to portray the iconic Nina Simone, is that dark complexion Nina forced people to deal with and appreciate the beauty of a dark complexion woman with African features. Besides her incredible voice, this is the most lasting imprint of the Nina Simone legacy!

  • GeE | October 28, 2012 3:35 PMReply

    I can appreciate you trying to draw parallels between the two, however Fredi Washington was not portraying, let say, Ethel Waters or even Josephine Baker. Nice try though.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | October 28, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    I recognize her from "Imitation." Undine... a water elemental -- clever. Meanwhile, I feel like Robeson should have streets named after him in every major city -- like MLK.

  • Winston | October 28, 2012 1:44 PMReply

    I loved that "Peola" role. I'd love to see more of her work. It's a shame so many like her never achieved greater success.

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