“It’s a Wonderful Life”: Honoring Lillian Randolph

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.


  1. marandaNJ

    In the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, based on a real murder that happened in Savannah, Georgia, there’s an over-weight black woman who practices voodoo. She wears dread locks, mis-matched clothes, talks to animals, and leads the white main characters through the black cemetary in Savannah to commune with the dead. She drinks from a bottle of vodka between practicing spells over a grave.
    She is undoubtedly there for comic relief, but she surely acts loony and absolutely is supposed to typify “those strange black people who Still practice superstitious voodoo”. The other black people in the film are a servant who walks a dog leash[ without a dog], a cook, and a bus driver.
    There’s also an interesting black debutante ball where young black girls dance to classical music with black escorts while their upper middle class parents look on. I thought it was interesting that blacks had to have Their Own Debutante Ball? Why not an inter-racial one?
    This movie shows us a glimpse into Modern Day Old Money South where there’s a rule for everything: how to sit, what to wear, respect for “traditions” in “our fair city that Sherman spared” etc. It includes the place that blacks are supposed to occupy in this mini-world with so much structure, it’s bewildering to the visiting Yankee New York City writer who is the narrator.
    If you ever want to watch a movie where the old moneyed southern whites do all their stereotypical stuff Separate from blacks who are supposedly doing all their stereotypical stuff, this has got to be it.

  2. I was just sharing with a client about Ethel Waters whose amazing career as THE WEALTHIEST WOMAN in Hollywood was supplanted by her roles as maids in the latter part of her career. CHeck out a bit of the biography I wrote here http://books.google.com/books?id=WSaMu4F06AQC&pg=PA668&lpg=PA668&dq=ethel+waters+kyra+gaunt&source=bl&ots=UG61kbGeXn&sig=eBUwS8Ee6raCfVOgeeOYaiBLRio&hl=en&ei=aYM3S5agIJTllQfFjeiaBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBEQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=ethel%20waters%20kyra%20gaunt&f=false

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