Legendary performer and trailblazer Lena Horne poses for a photo taken in the 1950s. The actress died Sunday in New York at age 92.
A Cotton Club dancer with a strong, expressive, voice Lena Horne became a "sepia cinema" star, relegated to black movies with lots of singing and dancing, but scant dialog. The emotion in voice hinted at the actress we can only imagine she could have been.
In a time before Technicolor, blackness on film was either conspicuous or covert. Studios often made light-skinned blacks darken their skin with make-up, so the celluloid would catch the contrast, and there would be no mistake. There could be no racial ambiguity: blackness had a specific place and a context on screen since Birth of A Nation.
In early Hollywood, there was Hattie McDaniel on one end and Lena Horne on the other, and not a lot of room for either of them in between. If you didn't want to play a maid or a butler, there were not a lot of options. Even though Horne was the first African American to sign a long-term contract with a major studio, she was pigeon-holed in a way Judy Garland, Mae West and other female performers were not. Horne's white counterparts sang, danced, AND acted. Were they typecast? Perhaps...certainly, in West's case. But even West took her turn at dramatic roles and writing; we got to see that she was more than a pretty face.
Horne was denied roles with any artistic range whatsoever. Too proud to just take anything, Horne resigned herself to a career as a musical entertainer so those who followed her might have more choices. She pushed open a door that Josephine Baker, as the first African American to star in a major motion picture, had just unlocked.
We think of Horne of as a phenomenal singer and dancer who put a dignified face on black beauty that was rare at the time, but who knows what else she had to offer. Tempting, titillating but never tawdry, she proved you could be a diva with less skin and more sass, a concept that seems to elude a new generation.
While we wince watching singer Beyonce branching off into acting or criticize the way beauty queen-turned-actress Halle Berry won her Oscar, perhaps we should consider that these women have choices their predecessors didn't have, and are doing their best to make the most of them.
Lena Horne should have been so lucky. Instead, she allowed her wings to be clipped so others could be free to fly.
Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist for TheRoot.com, an author and a regular contributor to 'Tell Me More.'