Obituary: Fredi Washington
Monday 04 July 1994
FREDI WASHINGTON was one of the first black actresses to gain recognition in films and challenge racism in Hollywood. Subsequently her brief Hollywood career in the 1930s is barely remembered, and somewhat overshadowed by the stands made by Paul Robeson and Lena Horne in the following decade.
Washington's most famous screen role was in John M. Stahl's tear-jerker Imitation of Life (1934), starring Claudette Colbert. In the film's moving sub-plot, Colbert's black friend and confidante is troubled by her light-skinned daughter's desire to pass for white. Washington gave an impressive performance as the daughter who disowns her mother and true racial identity. However, by the time Imitation of Life was remade by Douglas Sirk in 1959, it had become a traditon in Hollywood to cast white actresses as light- skinned black women. For instance, in 1951 Lena Horne lost the role of Julie in MGM's Show Boat to Ava Gardner. So in 1934 the casting of Washington in Imitation of Life was unique, and not repeated for 50 years, until Lonette McKee portrayed a night-club singer who passes for white in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984).
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1903, Fredi Washington was educated at St Elizabeth's Convent in Philadelphia and Julia Richman High School in New York. In 1922 she made her first stage appearance as a dancer in the touring company of the Broadway musical hit Shuffle Along. Josephine Baker was also in the cast. During a long engagement at Club Alabam in Manhattan, the producer Lee Shubert saw Washington and recommended her for a dramatic co-starring role opposite Paul Robeson in the Broadway play Black Boy (1926). At the end of the run Washington turned to dancing again and toured Europe in 1927-28 with her dance partner Al Moiret. In London they mixed with royalty and Washington taught a 1920s dance craze, the Black Bottom, to the Prince of Wales. After her return to New York, she appeared in several Broadway stage productions, including Singin' the Blues (1931) with her sister Isabel, and Hall Johnson's folk drama Run, Little Chillun] (1933).
In 1929 Washington made her film debut opposite Duke Ellington in a stylish musical short called Black and Tan Fantasy. Four years later she was cast opposite Paul Robeson in the independently produced film of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. In the 1930s strict censorship prohibited the mixing of races on the screen. When it was discovered that Washington photographed too white against Robeson, she had to be 'blacked up' and all their love scenes were re-shot.
In The Emperor Jones Washington's sophisticatation and intelligence militates against her stereotypical role as a Harlem prostitute. The following year Fredi made her Hollywood debut in Imitation of Life. So convincing was her performance that black Americans openly criticised Washington in public, confusing her with the character she had played. Many believed that the actress also desired to pass for white. In reality nothing could have been further from the truth, for Fredi Washington was an outspoken critic of discrimination in Hollywood.
After appearing in Imitation of Life, Washington discovered there was no place in Hollywood for a leading lady of her type. Refusing to play scatterbrained maids, she turned her attention to working as a campaigner for equal rights for black actors in films and the theatre. In 1937 she was a founder member of the Negro Actor's Guild, serving as its first executive secretary in 1937-38. She was also a theatre editor and columnist for the People's Voice, a weekly newspaper published in Harlem by her brother-in-law, Adam Clayton Powell Jnr. In spite of her personal success in Imitation of Life, Washington made only one further appearance in Hollywood in Allan Dwan's 'B' picture One Mile from Heaven (1937), with Claire Trevor and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson.
After she left Hollywood her stage roles included Mamba's Daughters (1939) with Ethel Waters, Lysistrata (1946), and A Long Way from Home (1948) - Anta's Experimental Theatre all-black cast version of Gorky's The Lower Depths. In 1952 she worked as a casting consultant on the British film Cry, the Beloved Country. Washington's first marriage to Lawrence Brown, a trombonist in Duke Ellington's orchestra, ended in divorce. In the 1950s she married her second husband, Dr Anthony H. Bell, a dentist, and retired to Stamford, Connecticut. In 1975, 40 years after making an impression in Imitation of Life, Fredi Washington's contribution to cinema was finally recognised when she was inducted into America's Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
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