Louise Beavers reportedly aspired to be a physician when she was a young woman, but opportunities were limited for women in the early part of the 20th century, especially if they were not well to do, and particularly if they were African-American. She trail-blazed in another way, becoming the first African-American actress to play a substantial role on film that showed a multi-dimensional character.
“Imitation of Life” (1934) was Miss Beavers’ most prominent role, sharing the spotlight and the storyline equally with star Claudette Colbert. The story of a woman whose light-skinned daughter callously rejects her mother in attempting to pass for a white woman cut to the heart of a racist Hollywood and a racist America, drawing controversy from both white and black commentators. It was also the story of a career woman, who begins as a simple cook but who becomes a famous entrepreneur and merchandiser not only of her own product but her own image. Many felt at the time that Miss Beavers was robbed when her performance was not acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination.
It was an important role in a potentially important film, but after that a string of the regular domestic servant roles became the mainstay of Louise Beavers’ career. However, she played opposite some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, including Mae West, Jean Harlow, with whom she appeared in “Bombshell,” and Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in “Holiday Inn.”
Later, Miss Beavers broke new ground again by starring in “Beulah,” the first TV sitcom to feature an African-American. Three other actresses also took turns at that character, one of them being her good friend, Hattie McDaniel, who also knew something about the trials of reaching for success in Hollywood while dressed in a maid’s costume. These two ladies were character actresses who could have been, and should have been, stars.