Dorothy Dandridge was the first African-American actress nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954. [Studio Publicity]
BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief
She died at the young age of 42. Her talents were unquestionable, although many did question. “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world,” she once said. Those were her thoughts. This was her “why.”
Meet Dorothy Jean Dandridge, the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film “Carmen Jones” and the first African-American woman featured on the cover of “Life” (magazine). Dandridge was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1959 for “Porgy and Bess.” She lived from Nov. 9, 1922, to Sept. 8, 1965, and was also a singer and dancer.
Although Dandridge found great fanfare as a singer, she desired to be acknowledged for her work as a great actress. During Dandridge’s time, African-American actresses would not be given intelligent or self-respecting roles to portray.
Dandridge had a troubling professional decision to make. Although not her preference, she chose to play the highly degrading and discriminatory roles of black women characters in hopes that better options would come one day. Oddly, in order to receive self-respecting roles, black women actresses had to first overcome the act of not being self-respecting. Does this mirror real life?
It is one thing to be unaware, but Dandridge was fully conscious that her race—and gender—was an obstacle in her showcasing her full potential as an actress. In many ways, Hollywood reflected America’s racial tensions. Simply put, it was not ready to have many leading roles for black women. Fifty-three years later, black women still search for leading roles.
Many times, there is pain when being an inspiration. Dandridge broke many barriers for aspiring black actors overseas. She inspired many domestically as well. Still, she had to live with the frustration and distress of not being supported because she was a woman who was African American.
How does one deal with that in a continuous and healthy way—especially when living in the spotlight? Now, compound that with having two failed marriages, financial stresses and a child who was born with brain damage. Dandridge looked for answers. Talk about pressure.
Between 1947 and 1958, the FBI monitored Dandridge’s professional affiliations and activities. Specifically, the FBI questioned her about her interactions with organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the Progressive Citizens of America.
Dandridge developed an interest in activism as a result of the racism she experienced in the acting industry. Newspaper stories about her political activities adversely impacted her career.
Some report Dandridge’s death as a drug overdose; some report her death as a suicide. Others report it as a mystery. On Jan. 18, 1983, Dandridge was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Underappreciated, she put in the work. Her memory lives. Talk about pressure.
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author and public servant.