- Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement by Emilie Raymond
Emilie Raymond's Stars For Freedom shows how black stars of film, music, and comedy have worked toward racial justice both in their capacity as celebrities and spokespeople and alongside grassroots activists. The narrative emphasizes the stars' real capacity to enact change against charges of tokenism or impotence. Raymond structures her argument around the lives of those she calls the Leading Six: Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Dick Gregory, and Sammy Davis Jr., and charts their activism throughout the "classic" period of civil rights activism.
The scene is set with a detailed account of the making of Porgy and Bess (1954), starring Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Sidney Poitier. The film, which has rarely seen release or screening since the fifties, prompts the volume's most detailed account of celebrity activism within Hollywood, using the medium to enact change in its stars' industry and reflect a fair portrayal of African Americans in a mainstream motion picture. Black stars like Dandridge had to weigh the benefits of having African Americans represented in films in any capacity against the costs of taking parts they might otherwise refuse, insofar as they might be stereotypical or stigmatizing. Contra Dandrige's dilemma, the chapter shows how the cast as an ensemble was able to push producer Goldwyn at MGM to "clean up" the depiction of urban ghettos and rewrite parts of the script to, for instance, remove clichéd accents. Thus these stars had a tangible influence on the final product of a motion picture, an outcome many other politically minded Hollywood activists were unable to achieve.
The remaining six chapters follow on from this chronologically and are loosely based on the work of one of the Six. Raymond attempts to revise a depiction of Davis Jr. as reluctant to participate in civil rights issues, "a result of focusing too much on the 'agreeable' aspects of Davis's public image and underestimating the riskiness of his behavior" (49). Raymond shows how this all-round performer challenged de facto segregation by moving into a traditionally white-only neighborhood in Los Angeles. For his part, Belafonte negotiated with northern white liberals, notably Robert and John Kennedy, and provided his New York apartment as a base of operations to organize events. Raymond also emphasizes Belafonte's role in diffusing controversy between civil rights organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Both Davis Jr. and Belafonte are central to the narratives of their respective chapters, but Ossie Davis, who organized the stars and the entertainment for the March on Washington, is almost relegated to an afterthought in the fourth chapter, in which Dick Gregory, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman are more prominent. Although the book's structure allows Raymond to bring celebrity activism into the story of the [End Page 97] "classic" era of civil rights as a serious and powerful tool for change, the chapter dedicated to the March on Washington raises the question of why these celebrities in particular are to be dubbed the Leading Six? Indeed, nowhere in the book does she defend her commitment to these particular stars. Much like the story of Porgy and Bess, the March was clearly a collective project in which the work of celebrities and activists combined to make the event a success.
Nevertheless, the following chapter charting the grassroots activism of comedian Dick Gregory illustrates Raymond's ability to wield her sources, convincingly demonstrating Gregory's fervor and willingness to take great personal risks. Using interviews with activists who worked with the comedian, Raymond is able to offer a sense of the ways his personality and star-status aided, and at times disrupted, their preexisting strategies. The activists' respect becomes apparent on the page as much as Gregory's own determination. When the narrative does drift from Gregory's story it is to show a parallel between his anti-segregation direct action in the South and that...