Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lonette McKee: America's Last Tragic Mulatto

There was a time when mulatto women weren't allowed to play themselves in movies. The famed "tragic mulatto" was mostly always played by a white woman. Lonette McKee, one of Hollywood's most celebrated tragic mulattos, experienced those sore days of cinema.

So, it's only befitting that these days, Lonette McKee portrays white women in film. We know her as Jason Pitt's mother on BET's "The Game." We saw her in ATL as Nu-Nu's mother. Also, she played Jessica Alba's mother in "Honey." Hey, if white women could play mulatto's then, then mulattos can portray white women now. Talk about retribution.
This past monday, I had the honor of sitting beside Lonette McKee as she sang to a packed house at the legendary Blue Note in New York City. I felt so special as this long-time starlette of music, television, stage, and film seduced us into a yester-year slumber.
I first saw Lonette McKee in the cult classic "Sparkle", a 1976 film about the pitfalls of the music industry. Picture Halle Berry in "Jungle Fever" meets "Dream Girls." It was this film that catapulted Lonette McKee to a career of portraying "yella gals."

Though the yella gal motiff has been celebrated in recent years by their exclusive presence in hip hop music videos, and by modern success stories of starletts such as Lauren London, Mariah Carey, and Rasheeda Jones, Lonette McKee's roles came about during the time when biracial children were still America's dirty little secret.
Lonette Mckee in "Queen"

What roles she's given us. Passion. The list is a long and accomplished one:
"Malcolm X" "The Women of Brewster Place" "Queen" "Jungle Fever" "He Got Game" and "Brewster's Millions" to name of few. What is important to note about Lonette Mckee's career is that she could have chosen to live her life as a white woman and bypassed all of the challenges of being a very light skinned black woman in Hollywood. But, Lonette used her career to represent mulatto women, not as a seperate entity but as a subculture of black women- especially in her roles in "Queen" and "Jungle Fever".

As Lonette McKee sang to us in her deep, provocative voice, I looked around at all the others who had slipped back to the "Sparkle" years. Beauty does not fade, it only hides and surprises you from time to time by allowing you another look. Lonette also shared a milestone with the crowd. After years of mulatto's being played by white women, she was the first mulatto woman picked to play the mulatto character "Julie" in Broadway's "Show Boat." "Now, what kinda shit is that?" Lonette asked us, making the predominantly white crowd burst into laughter and applause. Now in her 50s, Lonette ownes a film company, in which she has produced several films and music videos with Spike Lee, and she is an adjunct professor at Centenary College of New Jersey, where she teaches acting.
Lonette Mckee in People 1995
After the show, I made my way to Lonette McKee's dressing room, where she graciously invited me in and signed for me a copy of the "Sparkle" movie poster. I am giving it to my grandmother this weekend.
She looked so comfortable in her dressing room, a graceful allusion to the ladies of the cinema golden age. It was clear that this tragic mulatto had finally come to rest and found peace.  Yella gals world wide, pay homage. Lonette McKee paved the way.
***No filming or pictures were allowed during or after Lonette McKee's show.***

James Jones 

No comments:

Post a Comment