Actor, dancer, writer and Civil Rights activist Fredi Washington is best-known for her performance as Peola—the biracial daughter of a Black domestic servant who passes for white in the 1934 film “Imitation of Life.” However, her film career eroded not long after due to casting directors and audiences refusing to see past her performance and appearance in the role. Washington, having light skin and green eyes, could have passed for white, but she embraced her Black identity and refused to pass for access to more opportunities and better treatment.
When asked about her performance as Peola, her experiences in Hollywood and why she chose not to pass, Washington told reporters, “Because I'm honest, firstly, and secondly, you don't have to be white to be [a] good [actor]. I've spent most of my life trying to prove to those who think otherwise ... I am a Negro and I am proud of it."
Washington was infuriated by the limited roles that major studios offered Black actors, with most roles being offensive Blackface caricatures or domestic servants. In 1936, Washington— along with Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy, Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters— co-founded the Negro Actors Guild of America to find better creative opportunities for Black film and stage actors. After her last film role in “One Mile From Heaven,” Washington retuned to Broadway as a performer, theatre writer and casting consultant for the stage productions of “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess.”
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Assia Micheaux is co-founder and editor of www.reelcultured.com