- Spotlighting Black Female Performance
On August 17, 1957, the New York Times ran a photo of dozens of Ku Klux Klan members picketing a movie theater in Jacksonville, Florida. Dressed in hoods and robes, and with the bright neon lights of the marquee illuminating their white costumes in the dark night, they marched by the popular downtown theater unmasked. The reason for their gathering was the premiere of Island in the Sun, a film by Robert Rossen that had attracted significant media attention even before its release because of its depiction of interracial romance. Set on the fictitious West Indian island of Santa Marta, the film was more of an American projection of the tension between interracial desire and the societal restrictions of it than a depiction of West Indian reality. The film chronicles the lives of several island inhabitants—white, black, and mixed-race—under British colonialism. While the New York Times refrained from directly stating that racial tensions were at the heart of the southern opposition, its one-line summary of the plot was telling. The writer Thomas Hardy characterized Island in the Sun as featuring a “cast [that] includes two Negroes, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, and part of the plot concerns them in romantic involvements with white persons.”1 Dandridge’s character, the drugstore clerk Margot Seaton, is pursued by the governor’s secretary, while Belafonte plays a labor agitator who tickles the fancy of an upper-class white woman. When the film reached North Carolina several weeks later, any trace of ambiguity had faded. A group of Klansmen paraded in front of the Visulite Theatre in [End Page 241] Charlotte in broad daylight, carrying signs that read: “We protest the showing of this integrated film ‘Island in the Sun’ in N.C.”2
The frenzy surrounding Island, the first film in American history to feature a kiss—be it a very quick and innocent one—between characters of different races (Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin) carried over to Dandridge. Propelled into fame by her titular role in Carmen Jones (1954), which chronicled a young black woman’s refusal to be “cooped up” by patriarchy, Dandridge found herself in roles that all portrayed a sexual agency, exoticism, and confidence similar to those of Carmen. Frequently, the line between her on-screen characters and offscreen life became blurred, resulting in a flood of articles discussing Dandridge’s allegedly numerous lovers. But when African American photojournalistic magazine Sepia published an article “Why Dorothy Dandridge Is Afraid of Marriage” (answer: she does not want to marry a black man but fears a backlash against an interracial union), Dandridge had had enough. “Why did I guard myself when I might have met the man I could have found happiness with?” she wrote to Sepia. “I’ve examined myself over and over on that question, and I think it’s always been largely a matter of a sense of responsibility to my own people. … Above all, I wanted to keep an unblemished reputation for the sake of the members of my race.”3
The letter emblematizes the imbrications of race, gender, and class concerns that prescribed the social movements of nonwhite, nonmale, working-class Americans in the postwar years. It exemplifies the uneasy relationship between political affiliation/activism and visibility. Accusations of socialism haunted Dandridge’s career because of her putatively subversive statements on race, which meant that any racialized gesture, whether discursive (i.e., in the form of commentary or correspondence) or behavioral (i.e., in her on- and offscreen mingling with a set of people of diverse ethnoracial backgrounds), was scrutinized. The Federal Bureau of Investigation amassed a report on Dandridge after an anonymous source provided the agency with a...