In 1970s Hollywood, These Black Actresses Ruled the Screen

A first look inside movie historian Donald Bogle’s new book about black cinema history

Though most of the emphasis in the early to mid-1970s was on the hero, talented African American actresses did become fan favorites: Diana Sands, Rosalind Cash, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Lonette McKee, Lee Chamberlain, Brenda Sykes. Some actresses rose to stardom.

Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson played tough, resilient heroines at the center of such films as Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby, Cleopatra Jones, and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. Crossing, reversing, and transcending gender lines, the women exhibited what had traditionally been considered male power symbols and skills: they, too, were assertive, resourceful, physically strong, physically fearless. Like their male counterparts, because they could fight, punch, pound, and kick ass, or in the case of Dobson, master karate, they were not to be messed with! Like strong-willed, sexy matriarchs, their characters were often out to rid their communities of drugs and drug pushers. Not only did they defeat corrupt men and women, Grier and Dobson sometimes protected men as well.

Grier and Dobson were cultural heroines for segments of the feminist movement of the 1970s.

There could also be contradictory messages. In the case of Grier, it once was said that she used her sexuality as a weapon to ensnare villainous men. Possibly, yes—but moviegoers may have felt the actress was also exploited by the male gaze of the director (and camera) that highlighted and lingered on her physicality, her breasts, her hips. Not as well remembered as Grier, Dobson’s sexuality, on the other hand, was rarely exploited by her directors. Nonetheless, Grier and Dobson were cultural heroines for segments of the feminist movement of the 1970s. Ms. and New York magazines ran Grier on their covers with articles that indicated her importance.

Once the black movie boom ended, the actresses had to adjust to changing times and atti­tudes. Grier made a transition, appearing later in such films as Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Mars Attacks (1996), and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), and on television in episodes of Miami Vice and later The L Word. Moviegoers saw little of Dobson, who sadly died in 2006 at the age of 59, reportedly from pneumonia and complications from multiple sclerosis.

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Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones

Two actresses drawing critical attention were Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson. Growing up in Detroit’s Brewster Projects, Ross had talent, drive, and energy to spare. As everyone of that past era knew, Ross had been the lead singer of Motown Records’ great girl group the Supremes, which in the 1960s astonishingly had twelve number-one hits. Ross also exemplified an old-style goddess glamour. Confident that the singer would become as great a movie star as she’d been a recording artist, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. threw the might of his company behind her to star her in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). The film was based on the memoirs of jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose life and tragic death at the age of forty-four had been widely covered, discussed, and dissected in American media. Perhaps best remembered for her haunting recording “Strange Fruit,” in which she sang of a Southern lynching, Holiday represented a tormented artist—victim of a demeaning music business and a brutalizing, racist system. Shrewdly, Motown used the drama and image of a past music diva to give urgency and some gravitas to a current one.

Ross approached the role with a serious­ness and dedication that glowed on the screen. Heartthrob Billy Dee Williams was cast as her lover, Louis McKay, and Richard Pryor played her friend Piano Man. Though it romanticized and glossed over incidents in Holiday’s life, Lady Sings the Blues was highly entertaining, the kind of movie that Holiday herself would have enjoyed. Together, Ross and Williams were a glamour dream couple, perhaps the most romantic black movie couple since Dandridge and Belafonte in Carmen Jones.

In 1972, moviegoers saw Martin Ritt’s Sounder, the story of an impoverished black family in the South during the Depression. When the father (Paul Winfield) is imprisoned for stealing food to feed his family, his wife (Cicely Tyson) must hold their home and three children together. The oldest child (Kevin Hooks, the son of actor Robert Hooks) is also on a precarious journey to maturity as he struggles for an education.

Sounder brought Tyson to stardom. It had been a long time in coming. Having grown up in Harlem, the daughter of a carpenter-father and a domestic worker-mother, she took secretarial jobs. When she made the decision to pursue an acting career, her religious mother threw her out of the house. Slowly and tenaciously, Tyson found roles in New York theater, mostly notably in a daring all-black production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks. She also worked as a model. In the mid- and late 1960s, she found roles in such television programs as Naked City; East Side, West Side; The FBI; I Spy; and Gunsmoke. There were also scattered movie parts in Carib Gold, a 1957 independent film that starred Ethel Waters; The Last Angry Man (1959) starring Paul Muni in his last movie role; The Comedians (1967); and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). In Sounder, her character Rebecca became “the first great black heroine on screen,” said Pauline Kael. “She is visually extraordinary. Her cry as she runs down the road toward her husband, returning from prison, is a phenomenon—something even the most fabled actresses might not have dared.”

Both Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were nom­inated for the Academy Award as Best Actress, the first time two African American women were up for the award in the same year and the first such nominations since Dandridge in 1954. Nominated for Best Actor was Paul Winfield, who gave a strong performance that was a modern statement on African American fatherhood and masculinity, in stark contrast to the heroes of Blaxploitation. Black writer Lonne Elder III was nominated for the screenplay for Sounder. The film was also nominated as Best Picture. Also nominated in the screenplay category was one of the writers of Lady Sings the Blues, Suzanne De Passe. Though none of the black nominees won in his/her categories, the 1973 Oscar nominations were historic.

Going on to star in Mahogany (1975)—again opposite Billy Dee Williams—and in The Wiz, Diana Ross was a more talented actress than she was sometimes given credit for, and was especially successful with a classic kind of movie star perfor­mance: larger-than-life and centered on her own distinct star persona.

Cicely Tyson gave celebrated Emmy Award-winning performances as the title character in 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and in 1994’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. For a dramatization of the life of Harriet Tubman, A Woman Called Moses, Tyson not only starred as the abolitionist heroine of the Underground Railroad but served as an executive producer, a ground­breaking move for an African American woman. Selective about her parts, she did not play a large number of leading roles in the movies but nonethe­less worked through decades. Memorably in Bustin’ Loose (1981), Tyson was Richard Pryor’s leading lady. They were an unlikely pairing that brought to mind Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen: she was prim and proper, he was loose and loony. In her eighties, she turned up in such Tyler Perry movies as Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Why Did I Get Married Too? and in Tate Taylor’s The Help. Tyson also had a much-discussed marriage to jazz musician Miles Davis. In 2018, she became the first African American woman to be awarded an honorary Oscar.

Other notable actresses of this era included Diana Sands, who made a name for herself as an acclaimed stage actress in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie; the title role of Shaw’s St. Joan; and, most memorably, as kid sister Beneatha, searching for her African roots, in A Raisin in the Sun, a role she reprised in the film version. Sands looked as if she could play any kind of character.

Though her movie roles rarely matched her talents, she was cast in two particularly absorb­ing dramas—Georgia, Georgia (1972) and The Landlord (1970). In the former she played a troubled American singer who falls in love with an army deserter while traveling abroad. Also in the film, which was written by Maya Angelou, was character actress Minnie Gentry as Sands’s traveling companion. Initially, Gentry looks as if she rep­resents an older, less political generation. But when she speaks, you realize that she’s voicing the film’s 1960s-style political messages. Seeing these two dramatic powerhouses at odds with one another remains fascinating.

Sands’s strongest performance was in Hal Ashby’s offbeat 1970 comedy/drama The Landlord. When a wealthy young white man (played by Beau Bridges) buys an apartment building in Brooklyn—with plans to renovate it and push out the black occupants—his life unexpectedly becomes entwined with his tenants’, especially a young woman (Sands) and her militant husband (Louis Gossett Jr.). His affair with the woman leads to her pregnancy—and to her husband’s emotional breakdown. Lying in a hospital bed after having given birth to her child, Sands tells Bridges, who seems oblivious to the emotional pain that has ruined her marriage, that she wants the child put up for adoption.

“I want one thing though,” she says.

“What’s that?”

“I want him adopted as white.”


“Cause I want him to grow up casual—like his daddy.”

It was a wrenching heartfelt moment. Both Sands and Gossett gave two of their finest perfor­mances in this underrated film. An adaptation of African American writer Kristin Hunter’s novel of the same title, the screenplay was by black writer Bill Gunn, who brought a thoughtful, reflective perspective to all the characters, especially his African American ones. The cast included Pearl Bailey, Lee Grant, Mel Stewart, Robert Klein, and Marki Bey. Three years after The Landlord, Bill Gunn directed a cult favorite, Ganja and Hess.

Another standout performance was that of singer/actress Diahann Carroll in John Berry’s comedy/drama Claudine. As a domestic worker and a single mother of six children, the title character Claudine must juggle the demands of her family life with the pressures of her romance with a sanitation worker (James Earl Jones). Known for her glamour, and as the star of the TV series Julia, Carroll created a portrait of a seemingly ordinary yet striking woman. Claudine brought to the fore pertinent and pressing issues confronting then-contemporary working mothers. It remains her finest performance, one for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress of 1974.

Another actress of power was Rosalind Cash, who starred in Hugh Robertson’s murder mystery Melinda. In one respect, the film was the story of two women (Cash and Vonetta McGee) in compe­tition for the love of a slick disk jockey played by Calvin Lockhart. But Cash infused her character with a burning pathos and emotional passion that were achingly real and wholly apart from the for­mulaic aspects of the film. In a masterfully acted sequence at a bank where white bank officials are denying her access to an account, she unleashes her rage at the kind of racial discrimination she no doubt has experienced in the past. In actuality, the account is not hers but that of a murdered woman Melinda (her rival). Cash worked with and around the screenplay by Lonne Elder III to bring out her character’s complex psychology, in an example of the manner in which an actress can use personal experiences, frustrations, or knowledge to bring heightened tensions or awareness to the drives of her character. Having acted with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, Cash brought attitude to many of her characters.

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Rosalind Cash and Charlton Heston in Omega Man

Courtesy Photofest

On occasion, Hollywood producers and directors, seeing the appeal of African American actresses, cast them opposite major white stars. The ravishing Rosalind Cash was Charlton Heston’s leading lady in Omega Man (1971). Directing The Eiger Sanction (1975), Clint Eastwood chose Vonetta McGee as his leading lady.

Under the direction of Sam O’Steen, actresses Irene Cara, Dwan Smith, and the mesmerizing Lonette McKee revealed the pressures and heartaches as well as the chance for triumph within the music industry in another cult classic, the original 1976 Sparkle. In a story inspired by the success of the Supremes, three sisters form a singing group that is on the road to fame and fortune until derailed by the oldest sister’s descent into a drug-fueled sadomasochistic relationship. Its cast included such new faces as Dorian Harewood, Philip M. (Michael) Thomas (later one of the stars of TV’s Miami Vice), Tony King, and as the mother of the young women, Mary Alice. The music, by Curtis Mayfield, was recorded in a separate hit album by Aretha Franklin. Later Franklin herself performed a smashing rendition of her hit “Think” in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.

Reprinted with permission from HOLLYWOOD BLACK: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers © 2019 by Donald Bogle, Running Press in partnership with Turner Classic Movies