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Diahann Carroll: reflections on a groundbreaking career

By DWIGHT HOBBES
Reprinted with permission from Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
October 14, 2019
 

MGN Online

The late Diahann Carroll broke interesting, transitional ground starring as “Julia” (NBC, 1968-71). Her portrayal of a gracefully dutiful, wholesomely assimilated single mom was the image and embodiment of a white woman with brown skin: Caucasian features, straight hair, and grammatically correct at all times. The character was a widowed, well-paid nurse working for a white doctor, living in white suburbia. 

Not everyone considered this a significant breakthrough. “Many people,” Carroll acknowledged, “were incensed about that. They felt that [African Americans] didn’t have that many opportunities on television or in film to present our plight as the underdog … they felt the [real-world] suffering was much too acute to be so trivial as to present a middle-class woman who is dealing with the business of being a nurse.” 

MGN Online

“But we were of the opinion that what we were doing was important, and we never left that point of view … even though some of that criticism, of course, was valid. We were of a mind that this was a different show. We were allowed to have this show.” It won her a Golden Globe.

Ultimately, “Julia” was an improvement on playing domestic, which outside of “The Amos ‘N’ Andy Show” (1951-53) is how black women got work on television in those days. Though Hattie McDaniel frankly stated after her “Gone with the Wind” Oscar win, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”

Carroll had started out young in the Bronx, New York where she went to music and art High School with fellow student Billy Dee Williams. Her parents enrolled her in dance, singing and modeling workshops, leading to the 15-year-old appearing in Ebony and Jet magazines and on television’s popular “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts.” 

Then, in 1954, Carroll made an auspicious film bow at 19 in “Carmen Jones,” directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. That year, she also hit Broadway, and was nominated for a Tony for “House of Flowers.” In 1959, she again worked with Preminger for “Porgy and Bess” alongside Dandridge, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. 

She guested on several hit television dramas through the 1960s (“Peter Gunn,” “Naked City,” “The Eleventh Hour”) and co-starred with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward opposite Poitier in “Paris Blues.” Later projects included “Claudine” with James Earl Jones, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Roots: The Next Generation.”

Carroll came out of retirement in 1984 to make the biggest splash of her career since “Julia,” flying in the face of politically correct casting on the hit “Dallas.” Stepping outside the box of being sweet-tempered and cordially palatable, she played a villain and squared off against Joan Collins’ diabolically evil-hearted Alexis Carrington Colby.

Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux was an equally arrogant and ruthless witch on wheels. She proudly described her role as “The first Black b*tch on television.” She also played Dominque Deveraux in the spinoff hit “The Colbys.”

She continued her resurrected career with “A Different World,” Robert Townsend’s “The Five Heartbeats” and with a standout supporting turn in Kasi Lemmons’ hugely successful directing-screenwriting debut “Eve’s Bayou,” starring Samuel L. Jackson. 

Carroll played Ezora, a flinty dispositioned voodoo sorceress scaring the wits out of then-child actor Jurnee Smollett. Her final outings, in 2000, were television films “Livin’ For Love: The Natalie Cole Story” and “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.”

Carroll penned the memoirs “Diahann” (1986) and “The Legs Are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, Mothering and Other Things I Learned Along the Way” (2008).

She was a founding member of the Celebrity Action Council, a volunteer group that served the women’s outreach of the Los Angeles Mission, which helped rehabilitate chemical dependency and prostitution. She also helped to form the group along with Linda Gray, Donna Mills and Joan Van Ark.

Carroll died in her home in Los Angeles after a long bout with breast cancer. She was 84.

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