Spencer Williams—A highly regarded actor and filmmaker, Spencer Williams will always be best remembered for being Andy on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show that ran on television between 1951 and 1953 for a total of 78 episodes. Williams was born in 1873, and began his career in showbiz working for Oscar Hammerstein in the early 1900s. He was also mentored by legendary vaudeville performer Bert Williams, considered one of the greatest comedians of all time, and one half of the Walker and Williams comedy duo. Spencer Williams began working in film in the 1920s, with producer Al Christie hiring him to write dialog for a series of short all-black comedies. Williams cut his teeth behind the camera working for Christie in a variety of capacities, which prepared him for a career on his own making race films. Williams wrote Harlem Rides the Range (starring Herb Jeffries) and Son of Igagi. Alfred Sack, a distributor of race movies, was so impressed with Williams work as a writer, he offered him a chance to write and direct his own film. Williams’s debut film as a writer-director was 1941’s Blood of Jesus, and a huge financial success that led to eleven more films throughout the 1940s. Also an accomplished comedic actor, Williams would leave directing to star in The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show. Williams continues to act after the cancellation of the show, but would retire from showbiz altogether in 1959.
Oliver Brown—The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education helped lay the groundwork for ending segregation in the United States. Sadly, most people don’t know who Brown was. Oliver Leroy Brown was a welder, minister and father of three in Topeka, Kansas, in 1950. Brown’s 8-year-old daughter Linda was forced to attend a segregated all-black school several miles from the family home, when there was an all-white school several blocks from the Brown home. Brown tried to enroll Linda at Sumner Elementary, but she was denied entrance to the school based on segregation laws. Brown joined with twelve other parents in filing a lawsuit on behalf of twenty black school children. Brown was chosen to be the lead plaintiff in the case, although no one seems to know why. By the time the case was argued before the Supreme Court, more than just the families of Oliver Brown and other parents in Topeka were being represented. In fact, Brown vs. the Board of Education consolidated five cases from four different states, and represented more than 200 plaintiffs. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, overturning the earlier 1896 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which made “separate but equal” the law of the land. The ruling in the Brown case stated that segregated schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” This particular phrasing was open to interpretation, in some cases states took more than twenty years to desegregate the schools.
Richard and Mildred Loving – On June 12, 1967, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the case of Loving vs. Virginia, effectively clearing the way for interracial marriages in all fifty states. When the court ruled on the case, sixteen states still had anti-miscegenation laws that made it illegal for people from different races to marry, have sex, or cohabitate. Between the years of 1913 and 1948, thirty states recognized these laws, effectively banning interracial relationships and making them punishable by prison. All of this came to an end with the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving. Richard and Mildred were married in Virginia in 1958, where the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 made all relationships between whites and non-whites illegal. The Lovings were charged with violating the law, sentenced to one year and prison with the charges suspended on the condition they leave the state of Virginia. The ACLU filed a claim on behalf of the Lovings, which led to a series of court cases, leading all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings. Richard and Mildred had three children, but in 1975 Richard was tragically killed by a drunk driver. He was 41 at the time. Mildred passed away in 2008 at the age of 68.
Fannie Lou Hamer—A sharecropper and the youngest of 19 children, Fannie Lou Hamer became a controversial figure in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. Known for being equally plain-spoken and out-spoken, Hamer became politically active in 1962 when SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) began encouraging blacks in Mississippi to register vote. Despite the threat of violence and even possible death, Hamer was the first to sign up. A co-founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she incurred the ire of President Johnson when she demanded that members of MFDP be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Johnson was concerned that seating black delegates would alienate Southern whites, who would vote for his Republican adversary. The MFDP was never granted the respect and status that asked for during the 1964 convention, but Hamer was seated at the 1968 convention as an official delegate from Mississippi. She became a vocal opponent to the Vietnam War, and continued to work for a variety of community-based causes until her death in 1977 at the age of 59.
Bill Pickett—The son of former slaves and one of thirteen children, Bill Picket is considered not only one of the greatest cowboys of all time, but also the greatest rodeo star of all time. Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett began working as a ranch hand at an early age. Pickett is credited with coming up with the rodeo move known as “bulldogging.” This is when a cowboy takes control of a steer by talking hold of its lip with his teeth. He learned the trick from watching how bulldogs, or catch dogs, were used by cowboys to catch stray steers. Also known as steer wrestling, Pickett became world renowned for his bulldogging prowess. In modern rodeos bulldogging consists of the cowboy riding up alongside the bull, jumping off and wrestling it to the ground by twisting its horns. But in Pickett’s time, he actually bit into the lip of the bull. He was a performer in the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show—one of the more popular of the touring Wild West shows—from 1905 to 1931. Pickett showed off his cowboy skills all over the world, and appeared in several films during the silent era of movies. He retired from performing in 1932, and was soon after killed when he was kicked in the head by a bronco. Pickett’s legacy as a rodeo star continues to this day with the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo, the only touring black rodeo in the United States.
James Beckwourth—The exploration of the American west is largely credited to white explorers and mountain men who have become the stuff of school-yard lore. But one of the most crucial explorers of the western territories was former slave James Beckwourth. Born sometime between 1798 and 1800, Beckwourth was the son of a slave mother and her owner, Jennings Beckwith. Raised by his father as more of a son than a slave, Beckwourth was granted his freedom in the mid 1820s. In 1824 Beckwourth went to work for a fur-trading company owned by William Asher, who brought the young Beckworth along on an expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional explorer, trapper and fighter. He spent a significant amount of time with the Crow Indians, married the daughter of a chief, and became a revered warrior and leader. Perhaps his most historically significant accomplishment was the “discovery” of Beckworth Pass, a low-elevation path cutting through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from what is now Nevada into California. This trail, which was already known to Indians, made the migration into Northern California significantly less dangerous. Beckwourth’s life and adventures were recounted by him to author Thomas Bonner, who penned The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Much of Beckwourth’s personal narrative was discounted by both contemporary readers and historians as being mostly tall tales and legend. But in time his recollections were given more credit, and especially appreciated for his insights into the Crow nation, and the lifestyle of the day. In the 1951 film Tomahawk, white actor Jack Oakie played Sol Beckworth, a character modeled after James Beckwourth. When we talk about how Hollywood distorts history and the truth to serve a narrative of racial superiority, the case of James Beckwourth stands out as a prime example. Compare the real Beckwourth (below left), with how Hollywood portrayed him with actor Oakie (below right). Not only has the real life person been turned into a white man, his persona has been softened and diminished by turning him into a comedic figure.
Nina Mae McKinney – Often referred to as “the Black Garbo” or “the Colored Garbo,” Nina Mae McKinney was the first black leading women in mainstream Hollywood. Nina (pronounced Nine-ah) was born in South Carolina in 1913, and moved to New York while still in her teens. She worked as a dancer when legendary director King Vidor discovered her, and cast her in his 1929 film Hallelujah!. She was one of the first black actresses signed to a studio contract (if not the first), but MGM never really used her that well. She was loaned out to other studios, mostly for B-movies and low budget “black cast” pictures like Gang Smashers and The Devil’s Daughter. She also co-starred opposite Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River. Her career in Hollywood and the United States never really took off, and she spent many years working Europe, primarily performing in live cabarets. Nina’s final film performance was an uncredited role in the 1950 film Copper Canyon. She passed away 17 years later at the age of 53.
Frank Wills – On June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds at the Watergate Hotel, when he noticed that a lock on one of the doors was being held open by a piece of duct tape. Wills called the police to report a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, which was the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The break-in that Wills discovered led to a massive investigation and what history now simply refers to as Watergate. The Watergate investigation uncovered corruption at the highest levels of government, and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Newspaper reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are the men credited with blowing the lid off Watergate and bringing down Nixon, but it all started with Frank Wills. Catapulted into the national spotlight, Wills unfortunately was not prepared for the fame that attached itself to him. His life pretty much spun out of control after Watergate, and in 1983 he was busted for shoplifting. He spent most of his life living in poverty, until he died in 2000 of a brain tumor at the age of 52.
Robert F. Williams—Of all the key players of the Civil Rights movement to make national headlines, few were as influential and now as forgotten as Robert Williams. Born in 1925, Williams was a political activist and community organizer who became actively involved with the NAACP in the 1950s. Williams soon became something of a controversial figure for advocating the use of guns as means of self-defense. Williams founded the Black Armed Guard with the express purpose of defending the black community against racist organizations like the KKK and corrupt cops. In 1957, a KKK group in North Carolina led an attack on the home of a black doctor that was rumored to be helping fund the local NAACP. Williams and the Black Armed Guard were waiting, and returned fire when the Klan attacked, driving the racists off. Williams’s willingness to meet violence with violence placed him at odds with many key Civil Rights leaders, and also earned him the attention of the FBI. When the FBI made a move to arrest Williams, he fled the country and went to Cuba, where Castro welcomed him and helped the militant activist establish a pirate radio station, Radio Free Dixie, which would broadcast to the states. While in Cuba, Williams wrote Negroes With Guns, which would have a profoundly influential impact on Huey P. Newton, who would go on to form the Black Panther Party. Williams left Cuba, relocated to China and eventually returned to America, where he was brought up on charges that were eventually dropped.
As many of you may have heard yesterday, there is a new Shaft movie in the works (click HERE to read more). Almost immediately, the questions started coming my way. Most people want to know if I’m involved (because I’m currently writing the comic for Dynamite Entertainment), or if I know anything about the film. The answer to both questions is a resounding “no.” I am not involved in any capacity at this time, nor has anyone from New Line or Davis Entertainment reached out to me. I learned about the film a little over a month ago, as I began snooping around about the film/television rights (I was approached by some producers who wanted to look into doing a Shaft cable series). Between the lot of us, we found out that the property was in play over at New Line, so we filed that idea under “Dreams That Must Be Crushed.”
Don’t forget the check out the Shaft comic from Dynamite. I wrote it. It is awesome.
I wish I could say that I’m excited about the prospect of a new Shaft movie, but that would be a lie. This is not said out of pettiness because I’m not involved in the project. This is said because that last screen version was terrible. It was an affront to the original films, and more important, it was an affront to the novels by Ernest Tidyman. Even the original films, which I enjoy and appreciate, don’t do justice to Tidyman’s novel, or the depth of the character. Likewise, the television series was a joke. And perhaps most significantly, it’s been a long time since Hollywood has cranked out a truly satisfying action film with a black actor in the lead (notable exceptions would be The Equalizer [maybe] and Django Unchained). So you see, I don’t have much hope for a new Shaft.
That said—and because so many people have been asking (and will continue to ask)—here are some of my thoughts on the new film as a whole.
Gbenga Akinnagbe from The Wire is my top choice to play John Shaft.
– Cast the best actor possible. My top suggestion is Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow on The Wire).
– Make it a period piece. And don’t treat it like a joke. Black culture of the late 1960s and 1970s is more than a series of jokes punctuated with afros and bellbottoms.
– Forget the Singelton movie existed. Hell, forget the first three movies existed. Stick to the original source material (Tidyman’s books).
– Either adapt the first Tidyman book, or do something original.
– Respect the character over the concept. Tidyman created a great character, but much of that was lost in the translation to film. If there is a single reason the Shaft comic is good, it is because I respected the character created by Tidyman.
– Hire me. Or at least hire a writer than can craft believable black characters, and not sad cinematic clichés. I can provide a list of writers other than myself.