During this holiday season, lots of people go to the movies and watch classic holiday-themed films like, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film can be read as a critique of capitalism through its indictment of the Potter character, and an affirmation of hope and the beauty friends as “true riches.” There is one African American character in an otherwise entirely white cast, perhaps not surprising for a Hollywood film released in 1946. That character is “Annie,” the Bailey family’s maid, and she is played by Lillian Randolph. Yet, she maybe best known for is her brief role and memorable quote near the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which she offers some comic relief in the climactic last scene. Offering George Bailey, her employer, all of her savings, she says:
I been savin’ this money for a divorce, if ever I got a husband!
The line is funny, but not. It speaks to the fictive notion in the white imagination that black women have no families of their own, but live to serve their white masters. Scholar Jacqueline Jones in her powerful book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, dissects the many facets of this erroneous belief as she details the historical record of black women’s struggles to raise their own families while often laboring under the most oppressive conditions of white employers. There are few accurate portrayals in mainstream Hollywood films that speak to this reality, but perhaps Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of the character “Sofia” in “The Color Purple,” (1985) comes closest. In this film, Sofia goes to jail for talking back to and striking her white employer. The contrast between Sofia’s resistance to her white employer and Annie’s acquiescence is striking and, in many ways, speaks to the social changes brought by the civil rights movement in the years between 1946 and 1985.
Still, it would be a mistake to think that Lillian Randolph (the actress who portrayed “Annie,” in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” ) shared the same acquiescence to the white power structure as her character. Lillian Randolph (died 1980) enjoyed a long career in radio, film and television. Many of those roles, including ones in “Roots,” offered a very different view of black women’s struggle. And, in fact, Lillian Randolph’s own daughter Barbara Sanders briefly followed her mother into acting (pictured here). This holiday season, I’d like to honor Lillian Randolph, and all the black women who’ve played the maids, servants and walk-on roles in white-dominated Hollywood films.
Over the next few days, I’ll be doing a series of movie-themed posts about the way race and racism are addressed or perpetuated in Hollywood films.