Legendary actor Ernest Anderson gained notoriety for his monumental performance in the 1942 film In This Our Life – a single, supporting role that facilitated the alteration of negative depictions presented of African Americans in Hollywood film. Born in 1916 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Anderson was educated at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. and Northwestern University’s School of Drama and Speech.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Anderson moved to Hollywood where he worked as a service man for Warner Brothers studio before receiving his debut role in In This Our Life. It was Bette Davis, the film’s protagonist, who arranged Anderson’s interview for the part of Perry Clay – an aspiring lawyer who is falsely placed at the center of a hit-and-run scandal committed by a spoiled Southern woman.
The script originally called for Anderson’s character to comply with the dialectical speech patterns Hollywood filmmakers forced African Americans to deliver during the pre-World War II era. But after Anderson argued the integrity of the part, director John Huston empowered him to present the character with dignity, intelligence, and emotion.
Following his success in In This Our Life, Anderson appeared in a series of films throughout the 1940s, though his roles were less significant. After his honorable discharge from the army, he promptly returned to Warner Brothers in 1947 as a contract player. He remained active in film until the late 1960s, appearing in various educational films and concentrating on trying to humanize the demeaning roles given to African American actors. Anderson died in Los Angeles in February 1997.
Carlton Jackson, Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel (Lanham: Madison Books, 1990); Thomas Cripps, Making Movies Black (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1993); Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
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