Edwards, James (1916?-1970)
Edwards, James (1916?-1970)
With his thoughtful intelligent manner and splendid good looks, African American actor James Edwards came to epitomize the "new Negro" in post-World War II Hollywood film. His moderately successful motion picture acting career spanned four decades, from the late 1940s to his final appearance in 1970. His contribution to film history, however, is not attributed to a sterling performance in a wildly successful classic. Edward's legacy is that he was a ground-breaker, and his work helped to forge change during a significant period in American social history.
Younger film devotees may find it difficult to appreciate the impact that black film stars such as Edwards and his contemporaries Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte had on the psyche of postwar Blacks and Whites, and on the state of race relations in the United States. Edward's portrayal as a victim of bigotry in Home of the Brave (1949) was widely hailed as the first feature film to deal honestly with race issues in America. It was an early example of the cycle of "message pictures" that appeared during the volatile period of bus boycotts, school desegregation, and protest against systematic discrimination.
Historically, African Americans had appeared in motion pictures as soon as the first murky images appeared in nickelodeons during the early days of the twentieth century. By the late 1910s, as filmmakers fine-tuned the possibilities of storytelling on film, Black people (along with recent immigrants, women, and Native Americans) found themselves viscously lampooned with the most egregious of film stereotypes. During the Golden Age of Hollywood (1929-1939) a number of Black film "types" appeared: Black film characters were relegated to a few roles as maid, butler or, most notably, comic-relief—the dim-witted, bug-eyed, darkie servant who was the butt of everyone's jokes. War and organized protest helped to forge change and by the postwar period, though the stereotypes had hardly disappeared and the number of roles for Black performers was small, Hollywood pictures could now feature Blacks as lawyers, teachers, soldiers, and otherwise contributing members of society.
Like Poitier, James Edwards began his acting career in theater. He was born in Muncie, Indiana, and attended Indiana and Northwestern University, earning a B.S. in 1938 for dramatics. As a lieutenant in the Army he was wounded in battle. Surgeons had to rebuild his face and he endured a long, painful convalescent period. It was suggested that he take lessons in elocution. Recovered, he pursued an acting career and appeared in the controversial 1945 stage production of How Deep are the Roots (in which he portrayed the love interest of a very white, Barbara Bel Geddes). His first film appearance appears to have been a bit part as a boxer in the 1949 film noir classic, The Set-Up.
The year was 1948 and President Harry Truman signed an order that would begin the long and painful process of desegregating the nation's armed forces. Far away from Washington, D.C., and working in total secrecy, young filmmaker Stanley Kramer worked on a film that intended to exploit the ramifications of Truman's order. Featuring James Edwards in the title role, the film Home of the Brave was released May 1949, less than a year after the president's missive. Based loosely on the stage play (which had anti-semitism as a theme), Home of the Brave told the story of a young Black soldier on duty in the Pacific who succumbs emotionally and physically to the torment of racial prejudice.
To contemporary viewers the film may appear contrived and corny, replete with staid dialogue and sometimes tacky sets. With its strong theme and frank language, however, it was praised by both the white press and black press—which noted with encouragement that Hollywood was finally putting the old film stereotypes of Blacks to rest. It also won recognition for Edwards in the form of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting performance. He became a Black movie idol and his exploits were covered in the black fanzines of the time.
Issues of race were depicted in varying degrees in several of Edward's films. In 1951 he appeared in Bright Victory, portraying a blinded Black soldier whose white (and also blind) friend rejects him when he learns Edwards is black. In his role as Corporal Thompson in the Sam Fuller Korean War cult classic The Steel Helmet (1950), a Communist officer chides Edwards for risking his life for a country that requires him to sit in the back of bus. His other roles as a soldier include Battle Hymn (1957), Men in War (1957), Blood and Steel (1959), and the star-studded Lewis Milestone production of Pork Chop Hill (1959).
Bright, personable, and well-spoken, Edwards was a welcome alternative to the Black film stereotypes of the past. In effect, however, one stereotype replaced another. The bug-eyed comics of the 1930s were replaced in the 1960s by the "Good Negro"—intelligent, articulate, and most importantly, non-threatening.
But in some ways, Edwards was no Hollywood Negro poster-boy. He was an out-spoken critic of discrimination and he is said to have refused to testify during the infamous House Un-American Affairs Committee hearings of the 1950s. A 1953 article by Edwards appearing in the December issue of Our World magazine was titled "Hollywood: So What?" Unlike Poitier, who was seen at the time as, perhaps, a bit more accommodating, Edwards apparently spoke his mind.
Edward's other film roles include Member of the Wedding (1952), The Joe Louis Story (1953), Seven Angry Men (1955), The Phenix City Story (1955), Battle Hymn (1957), The Killing (1956), Anna Lucasta (1959), Night of the Quarter Moon (1959), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Sandpiper (1965), and his final appearance as a personal aid to General George Patton in the academy award winning 1970 production of Patton. Edwards was not to enjoy the success of Patton. He died in 1970 of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and daughter. Curiously, obituaries list his age at the time of his death as anywhere from 42 to 58.
If not for the influence of cable movie channels and video collections, many of Edwards' films would have by now been relegated to the land of long-forgotten "B" movies. His legacy to film history, therefore, is not a classic film but his efforts and work as a Hollywood actor to help forge change in attitudes about race during a time in the social history of America when change was sorely needed.
—Pamala S. Deane
Crowther, Bosley. "Home of the Brave." New York Times. May 19, 1949.
Edwards, James. "Hollywood: So What!" Our World. December 1953.
Guernsey, Otis L., Jr. "Home of the Brave Proves Imagination, not Cash, Pays." New York Herald Tribune. May 15, 1949.
"Home of the Brave." Variety. May 4, 1949.
Nesteby, James R. Black Images in American Films 1896-1954: The Interplay Between Civil Rights and Film Culture. Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1982.
Spoto, Donald. Stanley Kramer, Filmmaker. New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.