Movie Biographies: Actress Fredi Washington - Star Of 'Imitation Of Life' (1934) - Was Too Light For Hollywood

BEING AFRICAN AMERICAN & LIGHT-SKINNED in 1930s Hollywood brought great difficulties, but actress Fredi Washington managed to leave her mark in 1934 movie, Imitation Of Life. By Ben Arogundade. [May.10.2016]


SHE WAS ONE of the first light-skinned African American actresses to break into Hollywood, at a time when the movie industry's rules and sensitivities about race were at their most stringent. She found herself stuck in the groove between perceptions of white and black, which eventually cut short a promising career — but not before she made her mark in the 1934 classic, Imitation Of Life.

ACTRESS FREDERICKA CAROLYN Washington was born on December 23, 1903 in Savannah, Georgia. Her father, Robert T. Washington, was a postal worker, and her mother, Harriet Walker Ward Washington, was a dancer. Both parents were of African American and European ethnicity. Fredi — born with fair skin, finely-textured wavy hair and green eyes — was the eldest of five siblings. “All five of us were fair-skinned with what would be considered Caucasian features,” recalled her younger sister Isabel in her biography, Adam's Belle.

The children were raised by the grandmother, Ella Brown, aka Big Momma. Fredi's real mother died when she was 11, and her father later remarried, placing her and her sister Isabel in a Catholic convent, St. Elizabeth’s in Cornell Heights, Pennsylvania. The institution took in African American and Native American orphans.

Washington left when she was 16 and moved to Harlem, New York City to live with her grandmother and aunt. She got a job as a bookkeeper at an African American record company, Black Swan, where her father worked as a packer. In 1922 she got a part in the all-black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, as a chorus dancer. She toured with the troupe for four years, working with Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson along the way. She made $35.00 per week — a big wage back then, and enough for Fredi to take care of her whole family singlehandedly.

In 1926 she made her debut as an actress in a leading theatre role opposite Robeson in Black Boy. But with a limited number of acting opportunities for black actresses, she decided to move to Europe, where she worked as part of a ballroom dance troupe, touring France, Germany and England.

The young actress returned to the United States in 1928, securing small parts in various stage and screen productions. In 1934 she appeared in her best-known movie role in the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of the Fannie Hurst novel, Imitation of Life. She played the role of Peola — a young African American woman whose fair complexion and naturally straight hair conceals her biracial ancestry. She attempts to escape society’s discrimination by passing for white. Initially the production ran into trouble with the American film censors, who objected to its interracial theme.

When the film finally opened on November 26, Washington was so convincing in the role that some accused her of denying her heritage in real life — a charge she was quick to refute. “In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances, but I am not showing how I felt,” she told The Chicago Defender in 1935.

As has been the case with many light-skinned African American actresses throughout history, Washington was often considered too light for Hollywood’s few black roles. “She couldn't play a colored woman because she was too light,” said her sister Isabel. “People might mistake her for white.” As a result, like Lena Horne after her, Washington had to be “dipped” — to wear dark toned make-up for the few black roles she did get — such as when she played the part of Undine in the 1933 film Emperor Jones.

In fact, throughout her career, Washington turned down a number of chances to pass for a white actress in movie roles, and was always vocal about being a proud African American. “No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black,” she proclaimed in 1945. The movie celebrity's African ancestry also classified her unequivocally as black within the traditions of America’s notorious “one-drop rule” — the series of laws passed by white racists in the early 20th century, which dictated that any person born with as little as “one drop” of “black blood”, were legally to be classified as “black”, thereby restricting their rights as citizens.

After the Imitation of Life movie, Washington’s career hit a wall. With few opportunities for her in Hollywood, she decided to quit movies altogether. Politicised by her experiences, she became a writer and civil rights activist. She was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America, working for better opportunities for African American actors. She was also an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Washington later contracted Alzheimer's and eventually died of a stroke on June 28, 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut. She was 90-years-old.

Ben Arogundade's book, Black Beauty, is out now.

BIOGRAPHY OF RACE: Actress Fredi Washington parents were of African American and European ethnicity. Famous for her role in the movie, 'Imitation Of Life', her career was cut short by Hollywood studios that considered her too light-skinned for its few black roles.

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LIFE OF FREDI WASHINGTON: (from the top); An early photograph of the Washington family. From left to right: Fredi (left) Alonso, Isabel and Robert. ©Isabel Washington: SISTERLY LOVE: Fredi Washington, star of the movie 'Imitation Of Life', (left), and her sister Isabel in their elderly years. Fredi contracted Alzheimer's and died, aged 90. ©Isabel Washington: HOLLYWOOD LIFE: A portrait of Fredi Washington; Washington and Louise Deavers in the 1934 film, Imitation Of Life.

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The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase “Imitation of Life movie 1934” each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google actress Fredi Washington's name each month.

*All figures for “Fredi Washington's Legacy - The Stats”, supplied by Google. Figures include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.