Bogle, Donald 19(?)(?)–
Donald Bogle 19(?)(?)–
Culture critic Donald Bogle is the author of several well-received books on African Americans in film and television. His biography of Dorothy Dandridge became one of several film properties sought by actresses eager to portray the 1940s screen siren, while Prime-time Blues: African Americans on Network Television, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2001. Considered the first comprehensive study of blacks on American network television, it earned critical accolades and appeared on Essence magazine’s bestseller list.
Bogle grew up in suburb of Philadelphia, and authored his first book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Films, in 1973. He divides the portrayals of African-Americans on film into five different stereotypes that range from the overtly racist to the more subtly demeaning. Bogle gives examples of how black male characters often fell into categories he lists as either acquiescent “Uncle Tom” types, the jokester, or the sexual predator. Black women were the “tragic mulatto” or a “mammy.” He traces the history of these images from the blatantly disparaging The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to the “blaxploitaiton” films that were a box-office phenomenon around the time of the book’s publication. Bogle updated the work in 1989, and though he granted that some great changes had occurred in intervening years, the stereotypes had nevertheless endured.
Bogle has taught media and culture courses at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1980 his book Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, examined some of the forgotten stars of the early twentieth century. The book became the basis for a four-hour documentary series that aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In 1997 Bogle produced a long-overdue biography of one of those women, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography. He wrote in its introduction that he recalled overhearing his parents discuss this forgotten actress when he was a child. “For a long time she’s been known within the African-American community, with one generation passing on the story about her even though the mainstream media had sort of forgotten her,” he told USA Today.
Bogle traces Dandridge’s life from her birth in 1922 to her career as a child performer with her sister in black vaudeville shows. As a young woman, she became a popular nightclub singer, and then began appearing in films. Otto Preminger cast her in his 1954 musical Carmen Jones alongside Harry Belafonte, and Dandridge made history as the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category. Her “Carmen Jones” also made history for another reason, as film historian Bogle notes: it was the first time an African-American woman was portrayed on screen in a romantic lead as a beautiful, glamorous object of desire.
Cineaste writer Ed Guerrero termed the book a “clear, poignant but unsentimental explanation of Dandridge’s slow decline and demise” and “a valuable contribution to black cinema’s critical history.” Guerrero went on to note that “Bogle’s biography makes intimate and fas-
Born ca. 1950s.
Awards: Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation, BC ALA; 2002.
cinating reading, not only for its survey of the achievement and calamity of Dandridge’s life,” and for also depicting a fascinating, if little-known milieu of blacks living and working in Hollywood during its golden age. Concerning the racism that Dandridge experienced, Guerrero commended the author for his tone. “Bogle’s voice… never hectors or editorializes. He lets the events and evidence speak for the frank, systemic racism of the day that all blacks, from kitchen maids to movie stars, endured.”
Before Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography was even published, the film rights were acquired by Whitney Houston. Singer Janet Jackson optioned a 1970 biography of Dandridge for her to portray, and Halle Berry starred in a 1999 HBO film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
Bogle then spent four years writing Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. Published in 2001, the work is a compendium of blacks in the medium since its earliest days, and runs over 500 pages in length. In his first chapter, Bogle recalls his early fascination with the few black television characters as a youngster in the early 1960s. “Even as a kid, I often found myself asking all sorts of questions about what I was seeing and enjoying,” he writes. He traces the career of Ethel Waters, a black performer who appeared in the first experimental television broadcasts by NBC in 1939. Waters gave way to Hazel Scott, a classically trained pianist who had a show for a few brief months on the DuMont Network in 1950. Scott, however, was blacklisted during the anti-Communist fervor, and fought the accusations, which effectively ended her career. For the next several years, African American women usually appeared on television only as domestic servants.
Primetime Blues traces the slow progress out of that ghetto for blacks in television. He discusses Amos ‘n Andy, Diahann Carroll’s Julia —the first television show to feature a professional African American woman in a starring role—and the wildly successful 1970s sitcoms Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. In that last series, Sherman Hemsley’s cantankerous, opinionated dry-cleaning tycoon George Jefferson, as Bogle writes, “appealed to the African-American audience in [an] intensely personal way [as] a middle-class black man who asserted…his racial identity at every opportunity.”
Bogle’s book goes on to discuss the phenomenal success of The Cosby Show in the 1980s, and admits his own fascination with it. “What struck me most about The Cosby Show was that I had seen, during my suburban childhood, African American families similar to the Huxtables,” he writes in the introduction. “But I had never seen such a family on television.” Bogle notes that the achievement-oriented, close-knit Cosbys presented an idealized version of the American Dream that transcended racial boundaries. “[T]here was a reason why it was popular with Black America as well as with white America; why, within the African American community itself, its appeal crossed lines of class and gender. The Cosby Show demonstrated the unique perspective that could be brought to the primetime series when an African American artist was in control of the material,” Bogle writes in his first chapter.
Bogle’s book concludes with an examination of the success of newer networks like UPN and WB, which have achieved commercial viability largely through the success of its black-oriented shows like Martin, Malcolm & Eddie, and The Jamie Foxx Show. He notes that even in the early twenty-first century, when very few aspects of American life remain segregated, blacks and whites continue to watch different shows—with exception of workplace dramas like ER.
Primetime Blues earned largely positive reviews. Writing in the New Republic, John McWhorter faulted Bogle for applying to television performances the same five stereotypes of his Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks. “In Bogle’s doctrinaire framework, it is all but impossible for any black performance to pass as kosher,” McWhorter wrote, and noted elsewhere that “we can construct a future that would presumably meet with Bogle’s approva;… All black television series would portray financially stable people infused with a combination of intellectual curiosity and good old-fashioned mother wit.… Humor would be low-key, avoiding any hint of ‘raucousness,’ yet always with one foot in African American folk traditions. Mothers and wives would be portrayed by small, light-skinned women, preferably of dreamy affect, who would never engage their husbands in anything but the most civil conduct.”
Other reviews called it a seminal work in the field of multicultural media studies. “[T]he provocative notion that Bogle pursues throughout Primetime Blues,” remarked Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker, “is that television, commonly considered the pop-culture medium most responsive to societal trends, consistently lags behind movies and music in reflecting the minds and moods of blacks.” Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Lynell George stated that because of its length, “Prime Time Blues could well be expected to suffer from academic overkill. Instead, it reads like an enthusiast’s chatty outpourings; Bogle writes in a relaxed, conversational style.” A Publishers Weekly contributor described it as a “thoroughly researched, witty and often shocking social history.” Houston Chronicle journalist Craig D. Lindsey noted that “African-American readers may feel a little despondent reading” this tome, but still termed it a “mammoth, well-researched” book that “raises the question: Despite black gains in American life over the past five decades, if we can’t be seen with respect on television, have we changed anything?”
A resident of Manhattan, Bogle teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Pennsyvania.
Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History) of Blacks in Films, Viking, 1973, new expanded edition, Continuum, 1989.
Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America’s Black Female Superstars, Harmony Books, 1980.
Blacks in American Film and Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, Amistad Press, 1997.
Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001.
Black Enterprise, June 1993, p. 26.
Booklist, May 15, 1997, p. 1538; February 15, 1998, p. 978; January 1, 2001, p. 896.
Cineaste, Fall 1998, p. 60.
Ebony, April 2001, p. 16.
Entertainment Weekly, March 2, 2001, p. 62.
Houston Chronicle, June 10, 2001, p. 14.
Jet, November 13, 1995, p. 61.
Library Journal, November 1, 1997, p. 75; November 1, 2000, p. 104; January 1, 2001, p. 109.
Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2001, p. El.
Nation, April 16, 2001, p. 28.
New Republic, March 5, 2001, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, July 7, 1997, p. 21; November 13, 2000, p. 91.
USA Today, December 2, 1999.