Colin Dayan in Avidly:
I awakened one morning with the name “Dorothy Dandridge” floating, it seemed, above me.
I knew the name but had no idea why. My mother, the woman of glamour who reserved a sneer only for me, admired Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and later, when I was older, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson. I do not recall her ever mentioning or even listening to Dorothy Dandridge. So the weekend after the name sounded out over my head that early morning, I forgot about the Nashville heat and read “Everything and Nothing,” her purported autobiography, and Donald Bogle’s biography. The latter still sits on my desk with a photo of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
…So Dorothy Dandridge scared people. Too black and too white, or neither black nor white, she fit nowhere. She made viewers think, even when singing about sex. Knowing in her bones how race hatred, ever inventive, traveled from the South to Hollywood, though under cover as entertainment—perhaps even more pernicious and long lasting because of that—she threatened. Her rendition of “You Do Something to Me” is a call to arms. She literally blasts through her guise of demureness and hesitation, with the dare in her eyes, what she does with her hands. And then when she parts the frontal split in her long dress before she strides forward among a phalanx of men, it’s a severance as fierce as the parting of the Red Sea, and at the same time, somehow fantastically, it is also the consummate seduction. Even in her early 3-minute “soundies” in the early ’40s, she played her femininity to the hilt, even as she crushed it under foot. Whom was she fighting? What did she fight against? At a time when blackface was common, jungle movies scintillated, and a black woman could expect to play only maids or mammies, she was the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award playing opposite Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones (the year of Brown vs. Board of Education); the first to break the color barrier at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria; the first to appear on the cover of Time and Life, although the article in Time reduced her compelling talent and promise to the “wriggling” of a “caterpillar on a hot rock.”
When thinking about the tragedy of her life, it’s both easy and strategic to blame it on inner demons, a mean, aloof mother, or a penchant for abusive men. But it is instructive and urgent now to understand what her story tells us about a particular history of the United States. Its peculiar and long-lived brand of racism depends for its sustenance on an intricately contrived practice of subjugation that succeeds most when its object is most celebrated and apparently indomitable. The more Dandridge surpassed the expectations of a white world, the less she was expected to do. At the height of her fame and glory, she could not find a role here, though she persisted in breaking the color codes of the Flamingo in Las Vegas, as she made sure her band could enter the front doors as she had; introducing Martin Luther King at a rally in 1963; and, in one story, after she put her toe in the pool at another hotel in Las Vegas, it was promptly drained.