FLASHBACK: NPR Interview’s Gail Lumet Buckley About Her Mother Lena Horne

Originally airing in 1986, NPR’s Terry Gross interviews Gail Lumet Buckley, Lena Horne’s daughter. The interview gives more insight into Lena Horne’s family history. According to the late-Lena Horne’s daughter (listen to the NPR podcast below —you may have to wait for it to load):

“She was Walter White and Paul Robeson‘s test case,” explained Buckley. “She was a test case for the NAACP which had decided that they were going to change the image of Hollywood. … That made her the enemy of a lot of black actors in Hollywood, who were very upset. They said, ‘You’re trying to take work away from us. There will be no more jungle movies. There will be no more old plantation movies. What are you trying to do?’ And Paul Robeson said to her, ‘These people aren’t important. The people who matter are out there — the Pullman porters, those people. And they want to see a new image. And you have to do it.’ “

Lena Horne Passes Away at 92

Screen legend, activist and entertainer Lena Horne passed away on Mother’s Day, May 9, 2010, in Manhattan, at the age of 92.

Ms. Horne was a force of nature who blazed trails for Black women in film and entertainment. Better known for her early films like “Stormy Weather,” Vincent Minelli’s “Cabin in the Sky,” “The Duke is Tops,” and, she was continually an active fixture in film, television and stage later in her career in “The Wiz” (as Glenda the Good Witch), and her one-woman Broadway show, “Lena: A Lady and Her Music,” which won her a Tony and two Grammy Awards.

Ms. Horne was born into a Black –some say elite– upper-middle class family, on June 30, 1917 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, making her a fourth-generation Brooklyner. She was from a family of accomplished and educated members of society, including, publishers, educators, performers, and charitable/civic leaders.

She started her early career as one of the Cotton Club dancers, an intentionally selected group of women who were selected primarily for their lighter skin tones, who the owners (who were connected to mob boss Dutch Schultz Schultz and frequented by mobsters) felt would be more acceptable and attractive to the patrons. Ms. Horne was not unfamiliar with the stage, as her mother, Edna Scottron, was also a stage actress and performer, though she found less success than her daughter.

Miss Lena’s big break came from her appearances in Popkin Brothers’ “The Duke is Tops” and “Bronze Venus,” two films which was geared toward African American audiences, but which gave her exposure to the film industry and the MGM Studio.

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At MGM Studios, Lena’s roles were often relegated to songs that could be easily cut from a film when the studio wanted to appeal to white audiences in the South. However, the biggest slap is when her bestfriend Ava Gardner was picked over Lena for the role of Julie in “Showboat.” Makeup was even specially made for Ava Gardner to make her “darker” and more believable as a mulatto. While at MGM Studios, she found larger success as a sex symbol in movies geared toward Black audiences called “Race Movies.” She exploded onto the screen in films like “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.” When she left MGM, she returned to the stage for grander more elaborate cabaret performances, and even starred at the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria in 1957, which produced one of her most popular albums.

Ms. Horne also became an outspoken advocate for the Civil Rights movement, though many in the Black community questioned her commitment because they remembered her as the “Bronze beauty” who vehemently proclaimed herself as “Native American” or anything but “Black,” which was term that was considered as an insult up until the late-20th century. However, her steadfast support for the movement, her work in her sorority (Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.) and her civic involvement, elevated her to one of the most prolific Civil Rights activists in the entertainment industry. In her eighties, she found herself secure in her accomplishments, and, according to the New York Times:

“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”

Ms. Horne’s second husband, Lennie Hayton, and son, Edwin Jones (by her first marriage to Louis Jones), preceded her in death in 11970. She is survived by her daughter, actress and writer, Gail Lumet Buckley (who wrote a biography of her family and her mother in 1986 called, “The Hornes: An American Family”), and her grandchildren, one of whom is director and filmmaker, Jenny Lumet (“Rachel Getting Married”), and great-grandchildren.

She will be sorely missed, but her talent and legend will live on in film and recordings.

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Cast Away: Alicia Keys as Lena Horne

If you keep up with any kind of celebrity news, you’ll always hear about some future movie where they’ve already snagged someone to play the lead. The lead is usually someone who’s “hot” at the moment, but do they always fit the role or the character? Um, usually, not.

I frequently receive press releases, etc., with crazy proclamations that one star, or another, is set to play the biopic of someone who’s recently passed. It serves two purposes: 1) To give the star a “serious” role, and 2) to cash in on a recent death. Sometimes it works (Ray), and sometimes it just fizzles.

In 2005, MTV Films/Paramount PIctures blasted everyone with a press release about Mary J. Blige playing the magnificent Nina Simone. My first reaction was: They’re kidding, right? They weren’t.

I just couldn’t reconcile the Mary J. Blige I’d seen on stage and in videos, with the proudly Black and political Nina Simone. I even wrote a blurb on this site and in the e-newsletter railing against the casting. The problem is that I actually know who Nina Simone is. The majority of folks who now watch MTV don’t know who the hell she is: but they know who Mary J. Blige is!

Nina Simone was always fabulously proud of her African heritage, and always made sure that what was on her head reflected what was in her brain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mary J. Blige without her hair flat-ironed and glued to the side of her head. Okay, hair aside, Nina Simone was a classically trained pianist, who attended the Julliard School of Music, earned her doctorate and never let the public dictate her look, sound, or personal life.

Unfortunately, Ms. Blige has always been portrayed by the media as the perpetual “victim” who repeatedly makes bad mistakes and is always striving “over come.” Nina Simone would never allow that, and she would tell such. She also never let anyone make her “feel” that she was less than them, nor would she ever present herself as such. She wasn’t commercial, and had a self-imposed exile to France because her outspokenness resulted in a considerable, political backlash.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re both fabulous singers and entertainers, but I hate miscasting, especially when it comes to African Americans. People still don’t “get it.”

We should be more conscientious about how we allow others to interpret and present us. To ignore intrinsic circumstances and nuances that make someone who they are, is to discredit the person. They can “overcome” these circumstances and issues, but did those circumstances and issues happen to them because of what they represents, or because of how they adapted to them?

For example, to cast a lighter-skinned actor in a role about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is to negate the issues he outlined in his autobiography, specifically, issues surrounding color discrimination from other African Americans in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, while growing up. To cast a darker-skinned man in the role of W.E.B. DuBois is to dismiss the privilege that often accompanied his upper-middle class background, which was overwhelmingly made up of lighter-skinned African Americans. We may not like the history, but there it is.

Now, when I heard the rumor that Oprah Winfrey had picked the real (and ethereal) Alicia Keys to play the legendary Lena Horne, it made more sense to me. I had to ask myself why, considering that Lena Horne is from an “old family” in Atlanta, Georgia, and Alicia Keys is from the inner-city. Not only do they “resemble” one another, but they’re both entertainers. Granted, Alicia Keys is bi-racial, and Ms. Lena Horne is not, but Alicia Keys’ place in 1920’s black society in Georgia would be more historically accurate. Sad, but true.

When individuals who are so unfamiliar with African American culture begin casting us in certain roles, part of the story can be easily lost. (I didn’t “buy” Margaret Avery in the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple…especially since I had read the book. I was more for Alice Walker’s original choice of Tina Turner, though that was stretching the casting a bit from the book.)

Some actors can excel beyond our expectations regardless of limitations, and that’s in fairness to the actor and director. However, we need to demand better accuracy and representation in how we’re portrayed in film: that goes for men and women. Images in film have an incredible impact on the viewer, and there are very few members of the public who will seek out information beyond the movie screen.

So, here’s cheers to Ms. Oprah Winfrey for actually thinking through on her casting. Given Ms. Keys recent turn in The Secret Life of Bees, I’m sure she will deliver beyond our expectations.

(For the record, who would I have preferred to play Nina Simone? Well, pre-crazy Lauryn Hill, for starters…if ya’ll had asked her in 2005, she’d probably be doing much better now. I’m just sayin’.)

Who Would You Pick to Play Nina Simone? Lena Horne?