Fredi Washington (born Fredericka Carolyn Washington; December 23, 1903 June 28, 1994) was an American actress, writer and eventual Civil Rights activist - active in the 1920s and 1930s.
Fredi is best known for her portrayal of Peola in Imitation of Life (1934) - a groundbreaking film that addressed race relations in America in that very character; she's born fair-skinned to a black mother, and eventually tries to pass for white - breaking her mother's heart in the process. Fredi herself was of mixed black and white ancestry, and afterwards received lots of fan mail from young people of colour thanking her for portraying their "struggles and contradictions" on the big screen.
This was both a blessing and a curse. The Hays Code forbade any form of 'miscegenation' (and Imitation of Life itself was not approved by the office until two weeks into production) - so that prevented Fredi from being cast as a leading lady alongside white performers. And as she was lighter skinned, this made her lose out on a lot of roles for black women as well. She retired from films by the end of the 1930s.
Her experiences as an actress led to her becoming outspoken about racism and the issues that faced African-Americans. In her life she was also a theatre writer and casting assistant - she was responsible for casting pioneer Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones! She was also given her start by none other than Josephine Baker - who got her cast in the Broadway musical Shuffle Along.
Tropes associated with her work:
- Ambiguously Brown: She had blue-gray eyes, light brown skin and brown hair.
- Blackface: In The Emperor Jones, her fair complexion led to filmmakers worrying that her character would be mistaken for white (and thus that Brutus had shacked up with a white woman). So she wore dark make-up
- The Cast Show Off: In her first film Black and Tan, she showed off her dancing. She had been a chorus girl
- Dawson Casting: Imitation of Life (1934) - she was nearly 30 playing Peola at 18.
- Pass Fail: Defied many times. She in fact refused opportunities from studios to promote her as a white movie star."You see I'm a mighty proud gal, and I can't for the life of me find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin, or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons. If I do, I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens."
- Playing Against Type: In her last film One Mile From Heaven, she plays a protective mother trying to hide her daughter from gangsters.
- Playing Gertrude: Louise Beavers was only eight years older, playing Fredi's mother in Imitation of Life. She plays Delilah when Peola is a child as well, and her more matronly frame (as well as Fredi being Older Than They Look) makes it slightly more believable.
- Real-Life Relative: She acted alongside her sister in the show Singing the Blues.
- So Beautiful, It's a Curse: People often said that she was too pretty to play the stereotypical Mammy and servile roles offered to black actresses.
- Stage Names: In the play Black Boy, she was credited under the name Edith Warren.
- Tuckerization: The protagonist of the novel The Bluest Eye is named after her character from Imitation of Life.
- Typecasting: Often as the archetypal 'tragic mulatto', thanks to her Mixed Ancestry.
- What Could Have Been: The 1959 remake of Imitation of Life approached her about reprising her role - now named Sarah Jane. As she was both retired from films and nearly fifty, she turned it down.
- Word of Saint Paul: She felt that Peola didn't want to pass for white just for the sake of it - but because it would allow her the same opportunities as everyone else.