Mortals Shared Stars' Galaxy in Black Hollywood

By Donna Britt
Friday, May 13, 2005

Before we get to black Hollywood of yesteryear, let's acknowledge a question on the lips of millions of today's movie fans:

Angelina or Jennifer?

With which of Brad Pitt's lovely women -- his soon-to-be ex-wife or his current flame -- would most men prefer to have, um, a latte? Recently, I put the question to two pleasant, strapping young men shopping in downtown Silver Spring.

Before you decide who's right -- the taller guy, who responded, "Jennifer, she's finer," or his buddy, who countered, "Angelina, men like an edgier woman" -- try imagining something:

Envision the first guy saying, "Well, Jennifer's looking really hot lately -- I just saw her at that new club on Wayne Avenue."

Then imagine his friend replying: "Nah, Angelina's hotter. My kids play racquetball at her house. You should see her in a tennis skirt."

Once upon a time, in the Tinseltown described in Donald Bogle's new book, "Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood," plenty of average working guys had firsthand knowledge of the relative charms of, say, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

Because the women, at one time or another, were their neighbors.

Fifty years ago, stars of every shade were more accessible than in today's age of entourages, bodyguards and Fort Knox-worthy security systems. But even then, black Hollywood was special, a world distinct from the studio system-dominated Tinseltown that Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor ruled. Black Hollywood had its own stars, talent scouts, tony hotels, scrappy agents and fawning media.

All were centered on Central Avenue, nicknamed "The Stem," smack in Los Angeles' black community.

Across the nation, similar concentrations of black life thrived. The redlining and restrictive covenants that kept blacks from living in certain neighborhoods had an unexpected, positive result:

African Americans of every economic, social and education level lived close enough together for their community to become surprisingly unified, prosperous and self-affirming. In Los Angeles, as elsewhere, "a very cohesive community emerged," Bogle said in a recent phone interview.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company