From Butterfly to `Mosquito'

1st December 1995 at 00:00
Reva Klein looks back at the career of a black American actress, who spent a lifetime trying to overcome the prejudice endemic in the film industry

Think of the film Gone with the Wind and I'll bet you that after Rhett and Scarlett, the next characters to pop into your mind are those of Mammy and a squeaky-voiced servant girl who gets her face smacked by her mistress when she admits that she "don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies".

The actress playing the part of the servant girl Prissy was Butterfly McQueen. Now 84-years-old and the last surviving member of the cast, she is the subject of a media education seminar next week at the National Film Theatre, London an event aptly titled "Pride and Prejudice".

The story of Butterfly McQueen is the story of an actress's ambitions thwarted and talents ignored because of the deep racism in American society. Film historian, writer and broadcaster Stephen Bourne, who has researched Mc-Queen's life along with other black actors, will be delivering the seminar, and he sees the short, incomplete career of McQueen as emblematic of many other black artists. But while others became bitter and disillusioned, Butterfly re-channelled her creative energies into education and community work.

The actress's life, as researched by Bourne, would make a terrific bio-pic itself. She was born as Thelma McQueen in 1911 in as deep a south as you can get Florida to a stevedore father and a mother who worked as a maid. When she finished her convent schooling, she had various menial jobs before moving up to New York to try to make it in show business. It was after a stint of several years on and off Broadway, during which she picked up her stage name after dancing in the butterfly ballet sequence of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that she made her move to Hollywood.

She related how it happened in a rare television interview with Terry Wogan in 1989. A friend told her about a new book she had read called Gone with the Wind and how it was in the papers that a movie of it was going to be made. "So, " Butterfly quotes her friend as telling her, "you just go down to (Hollywood movie mogul David O) Selznick's Park Avenue office and tell them that you're Prissy". She duly obliged, only to be told by his office that she was too old, too fat and too dignified. But after an unsuccessful search, Selznick's office came back to her and offered her a contract.

The role of Prissy was to be Butterfly McQueen's claim to notoriety as much as to fame. As she told Wogan, "I hated that part then. Selznick understood that no one intelligent would want to be Prissy. A stupid girl, that's what Prissy was. Everyone on the set was happy but me. Selznick understood why."

Indeed, Selznick knew only too well. Like many of the movie giants of the day, he was a Jew of immigrant stock. The year was 1939 and, in his own words, he was "watching what was happening in Europe". He did not intend to make a picture that was biased against another minority.

But in the end, despite Butterfly's attempts to de-stereotype the role (refusing, for instance, to shoot a scene in which she was required to eat watermelon), Prissy was enough to make Malcolm X, as he wrote in his autobiography, feel "like crawling under the rug".

A succession of minor film parts playing maids followed, including Lottie in Mildred Pearce with Joan Crawford in 1945, for which, despite her strong performance in a prominent role, she was not even given a screen credit. Fed up and demoralised, McQueen issued a statement in 1946 announcing that she would never again play "handkerchief head" parts. So she left a Hollywood in which she had struggled against segregation (she and other black actors in Gone with the Wind demanded and won de-segregated toilets on the set) and the kind of attitude that demonstrated that the film industry, under pressure from southern distributors, wanted to keep black actors at the back of the metaphorical bus.

In her subsequent life, she worked as a maid in the south and as a taxi dispatcher in New York, among other things. Then, in the Sixties, she took a new direction, ploughing her energy into social work projects in Harlem. She also went to college and at the tender age of 64, received a BA in political science. Since then, she has taught drama to young black people and occasionally worked in film and television, returning to the big screen to appear with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast at the age of 78.

For Stephen Bourne, Butterfly's fascination is based on her enduring quality as a star who was never given much of a chance to shine. "I've interviewed a lot of older black actors in this country and most will have taken demeaning roles at the beginning of their careers. They would say, as Butterfly would, that they took those roles but always did them with dignity and humanity. Very few black actors have avoided playing stereotyped roles even today. I have admiration for her as a survivor especially when she has had the odds stacked against her."

Stephen Bourne's seminar on "Butterfly McQueen Pride and Prejudice" is at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London on December 5, 6.30pm. For bookings, ring the NFT box office on 0171 928 3232

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