Hiding in Plain Sight: Blackamoors in Classical Hollywood Cinema

Curator's Note

In August 2020, a House Beautiful article, “There’s No Excuse for Buying or Decorating with Blackamoors,” posited that such “figures are a clear symbol of centuries of racism.” The term Blackamoor used to be used to refer to a dark-skinned African but is now considered both archaic and offensive. However, it is still used to refer to figures of decorative art, from early modern period to present, often of Black figures as servants (holding a tray, a lamp, a vase, etc.). Recounting the history of such decorative figures of Black servitude, from their origins as European luxury objects in 17th-century aristocratic décor to their subsequent popularization, as less expensive variants were produced, particularly in Venice, and finally their incorporation into 20th-century American décor, the article, it turns out, was an apologia. Only after this synoptic history, one learned that “House Beautiful recently included an image of a room that contained a Blackamoor, specifically a table with a sculpture of a dark-skinned person as its base. While the image and its story were reviewed by many staffers, the table was not spotted until after publication.”[1]

The Blackamoor’s invisibility—at least to many non-Black viewers—is one of its most shocking attributes, given how boldly, sometimes grotesquely, such objects embody the servitude of Black bodies in Western society. This was exactly what artist Fred Wilson drew attention to when he placed Blackamoors in subservient poses around Venice when he represented the U.S. at the 2003 Biennale, observing, “the figures…are so common in Venice that few people even notice them.”[2]

Aside from the groundbreaking research, dialogue, and artwork presented at a symposium and exhibition, organized for New York University’s La Pietra campus in Florence, and the corresponding publication, ReSignifications,there is relatively little published scholarship on Blackamoors.[3] A synoptic history remains to be told; it would include not only the circulation of Venetian decorative figures throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and the subsequent diffusion of more mass-produced models, especially popular in the transatlantic market, but would also analyze their relationship to such American reifications of racism as Black lawn jockeys and cigar store Indians, and interrogate waves of fashion for Blackamoors, for instance in the late 1930s, as suggested (or perhaps inspired) by Coco Chanel, whose home was famously “graced” by Blackamoors. Diana Vreeland collected Blackamoor jewelry produced by Cartier, “the chic of Paris in the late thirties.” Apropos of such fashion, as late as 1984, Vreeland wrote in her memoir, “I’m told it’s not in good taste to wear Blackamoors anymore, but I think I’ll revive them. Why not?”[4]

An entirely uncommented part of this history, as far as I am aware, is the presence of Blackamoors as décor in Hollywood movies. In movies, however, they rarely stand for fashion. Rather, such figures are usually in the background, silently reinforcing white supremacy and signifying privilege, wealth, and class aspirations. Despite their ubiquity and speaking parts, a similar unremarkability—or unquestioned marginality—often characterized the presence of and parts played by Black actors in movies at the height of the American studio system, as has been widely observed. And, just as the many Black servants of white households in movies were played by a relatively small number of contracted actors, often uncredited, it appears that studio prop departments all collected Blackamoor figures.

The only evidence of studio holdings I have seen, beyond the films themselves, is the catalog of a 1989 auction of European Furniture, Paintings and Objects of Art from The Collection of Paramount Pictures at Christie’s, New York, Saturday, December 16, 1989.

Paul Kaplan, a friend, and specialist in the representations of Blacks in art since the Renaissance, alerted me to the catalog, and the occasional presence of Blackamoors in Hollywood movies.[5] A few of the sightings here—none (as far as I know) noted in film literature—are Paul’s; most of the rest are mine. It is likely that such objects began to be collected by studio prop departments in the silent period and appeared in silent films. Clearly, the films included here are just the tip of the iceberg, ones in which just two vigilant viewers have spotted Blackamoors, hiding in plain sight.

The Big Five major Hollywood studios and others are represented here, as well as a range of genres. In addition to period dramas (That Hamilton Woman, Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Song of Surrender) and comedies (Ruggles of Red Gap and its remake Fancy Pants, Heaven Can Wait), also contemporary dramas (Now, Voyager, Old Acquaintance, Laura, It’s a Wonderful Life, Humoresque, Body and Soul, All About Eve, Young Man with a Horn, Summertime, The Best of Everything) and comedies (The Cat and the Canary, George Washington Slept Here, The Palm Beach Story, Julia Misbehaves, One Touch of Venus, Adam’s Rib, Count Your Blessings, The Honey Pot); a musical (It’s Always Fair Weather); and a couple of Bond films (according to one source, eleven of them, beginning with From Russia with Love, feature Blackamoors!).[6]

Although one is inclined to regard these as standard decorations—used routinely by production designers and set decorators—it is possible to detect some patterns in this set of films. In period films, Blackamoors are associated with class, but in various ways. In some, as domestic décor, they seem to denote haute bourgeois or upper-class status, while in others—especially comedies, they are prominent in the homes of the nouveau riche. Their arriviste associations are clear in several dramas with contemporary settings, too. For these meanings to be uncovered, along with their racial implications, the figures themselves must first emerge from the obscurity of set decoration, into the consciousness of viewers and scholars.


[1] Emma Bazilian, “There’s No Excuse for Buying or Decorating With Blackamoors,” House Beautiful, August 27, 2020. https://www.housebeautiful.com/lifestyle/a33823120/blackamoor-history/

[2] Phoebe Hoban, “The Shock of the Familiar,” New York Magazine, July 23, 2003. https://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/n_9014/

[3] Awam Amkpa, ed., ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Readings (Rome: Postcart, 2016). One hopes this deficit will be corrected by Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts, a book project of Adrienne Childs’s, which has been contracted by Yale University Press. See Childs’s website: https://www.ornamentalblackness.com/

[4] Diane Vreeland, D.V. (Boston: DaCapo ,1997), 53-54.

[5] Paul Kaplan is Professor of Art History at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Studies in the Fine Arts; Iconography, number 9. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 1985), Contraband Guides: Race, Transatlantic Culture, and the Arts in the Civil War Era (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020), numerous journal articles and book chapters, and, recently, with Shaul Bassi, African Venice: a Guide to Art, Culture, and People (Wetlands Press, 2024). He is a major contributor to Harvard University Press’s The Image of the Black in Western Art series (2010-2012) and served as Project Scholar for Fred Wilson’s Speak of Me as I Am, an installation in the American Pavilion of the 2003 Venice Biennale.

[6] Lind, Benjamin. “The Blackamoor Figures in Bond Films,” The Bond Bulletin, February 19, 2015.

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