A fair-skinned, green-eyed African-American actress, Fredi Washington was well respected for her talent as a film and theater performer. Nevertheless, she consistently faced difficulties because of the conflict between her light complexion and her social identity as an African American. She was cast in very limited roles, playing stereotypical mulatto characters—tragically beautiful girls doomed because of their mixed race. As a result of Hollywood’s merciless typecasting, Washington was never able to achieve her full potential as an actress.
In Black Boy, one of her early theater successes, Washington starred with Paul Robeson, playing a black girl who passed for white. Audiences were interested in the play in large part because Washington was viewed as a curiosity, a black girl who looked white. Her part in Black Boy was Washington’s first in a long line of mulatto characters who suffered terribly as a result of their mixed racial heritage. In her most famous role of this type, Peola in Imitation of Life, Washington “emerged as the archetypal tragic mulatto for the Depression era.”1 Imitation of Life starred Claudette Colbert as a widow and Louise Beavers as her servant; the two become friends and business partners and share the challenges of raising their daughters alone. Washington’s character, Peola, the maid’s mulatto daughter, figures in a subplot that is so affecting it nearly eclipses the primary story. Peola leaves home, passes for white, and marries a white man. In spite of her outstanding performance, Washington received no offers for lead roles in other films. Of Hollywood’s typecasting of Washington and other African-American actresses, Donald Bogel suggests, “the movies were not ready for idealized tragic black heroines. Audiences preferred mammies and jemimas who could be laughed at or enjoyed or pitied but who would not strike at their consciences.”2
Hollywood’s discomfort with Washington was evident not only in the limited roles she was offered, but also in her treatment at the hands of the industry. When she appeared in The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson, for example, Will Hays, the then powerful head of Hollywood’s censoring agency, insisted that Washington wear dark makeup to conceal her light complexion, insuring that the audience would not mistake her for a white woman in her love scenes with Robeson. Frustrated by the racist treatment she faced in Hollywood, Washington eventually gave up her film career.
Though she received more diverse roles in the theater, she was still frustrated by the entertainment industry’s limited view of African Americans and its insistence on promoting racial stereotypes. As a result, Washington founded the Negro Actors Guild of America, an organization devoted to challenging the entertainment industry’s narrow representations of African Americans. Through this organization she worked to encourage the creation of better, more realistic roles for people of color and the elimination of stereotypical characters and scenes from the film and theater marketplace. In addition, Washington worked with the NAACP on behalf of actors, hoping to secure greater participation in the arts for African Americans. She also developed a reputation in New York as a theater critic for the popular Harlem paper, The People’s Voice.