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The First Book By A Black Author Adapted To Film By A Hollywood Studio Was…?

While researching for a future books-to-film post, I suddenly wondered what the first book by a black author to be adapted to film by a Hollywood studio was…!

Anyone… anyone… anyone…?

No, Oscar Micheaux doesn’t count in this case, because, again, I’m only considering books that have been optioned and adapted by Hollywood studios.

A headscratcher… so, I went through a few books of mine that cover, in some facet, black film history, notably books by Donald Bogle, bell hooks, Manthia Diawara and Ed Guerrero, and others. And I think I found the answer within the pages of Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image In Film (a recommended read if you haven’t read it already).

On page 28, in the chapter titled Hollywood’s Inscription Of Slavery, Guerrero mentions a 1946 book by African American author, Frank Yerby, titled, The Foxes of Harrow. Guerrero doesn’t explicitly state that the book is indeed the first by a black author to be adapted by a Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox in this case), so I wasn’t immediately certain.

Naturally, I looked up Yerby and the book to mentions on a number of sites (Wikipedia, IMDB, The New Georgian Encyclopedia, and others) that all say Yerby was the first African American author to see his work adapted to film by a Hollywood studio.

Any of you all already know this? I certainly didn’t! Though, in my post last fall asking for names of books by black authors that have been adapted to film, of the 30 comments, no one mentioned Yerby’s The Foxes Of Harrow.

So what’s this book about? Well, first, it’s worth noting that it was a best-seller; it centered on “an Irish rascal and inveterate gambler who wins a vast estate while gaming in New Orleans.

In 1947 John M. Stahl directed a film based on the book, which starred Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

Needless to say, I haven’t read The Foxes Of Harrow. It doesn’t look like it’s in print anymore, but you can buy early editions from resellers via Amazon.com. I picked up a copy for myself actually.

I haven’t seen the film either. But I’ll hunt it down. It’s not readily available; the only site I found it on was on Amazon, but it’s the Spanish version, in region 2. It’s definitely not on Netflix. Maybe try eBay.

Clearly, the book’s story isn’t centered on black people, which would partly explain studio interest at the time; as for its content… in Ed Guerrero’s book, he praises the film (not necessarily Yerby’s book), as one of a number of 1940s movies that “increasingly sensitized Hollywood to the African American perspective on slavery…” He highlights 2 scenes from the film as examples of an “undercurrent of… cultural resistance to slavery and Christianity.” In the first, slaves are shown practicing a voodoo ceremony; and in the second, a black mother throws herself and her baby into a river to avoid having to go on living in slavery (almost as if addressing the scene from Birth Of A Nation, when the white woman jumps off a cliff to avoid submitting to a black man).

So, clearly there were subplots involving black people. But, as I said, that was the movie adaptation, not the book.

With regards to the book, I found this piece in the New Georgian Encyclopedia: “Yerby was often criticized by blacks for the lack of focus on or stereotypical treatment of African American characters in his books. Thus, ironically, while Yerby held the distinction of being the first best-selling black novelist, he also became one of the most disparaged for his lack of racial consciousness. In response to this criticism, Yerby argued that “the novelist hasn’t any right to inflict on the public his private ideas on politics, race, or religion.” He later amended this stance to a degree, and in the late 1950s and 1960s he wrote novels that touched upon issues of race and southern culture…

Hmm… alright. I need to familiarize myself with Yerby and the film, before adding my own “color” commentary.

If you already know all this and can shed some further light on the matter, please do so; if not, well, now you know. You have somewhere to start :)

Yerby died in 1991 by the way. he was 75 years old.

15 comments to The First Book By A Black Author Adapted To Film By A Hollywood Studio Was…?

  • Jug

    Wow, this is really interesting. I wanna know more about it, the writer & the book/film. But how funny is it we’re STILL having that same argument, that if you’re black, you have to do “Black” stuff? Very telling indeed.

    • Since I am the archivist for actress Maureen O’Hara and have also designed and edited her official website “Maureen O’Hara Magazine” since 1995, I have a definite interest in “Foxes of Harrow.” I did find the book by Frank Yerby in the local library and found it absolutely fascinating. Yerby was an excellent writer. The movie plot, of course, deviates here and there from the book; but for the most part the film and the book compliment one another. I also have a CD sound track of the movie – which is also excellent. This is kind of a forgotten/overlooked film of Harrison and O’Hara – but is worth resurrecting for true classic film lovers.

  • Loved the books of Frank Yerby! I so love this blog too. :-)

  • Valerie Hawkins

    Now you know if you want the real deal on a book, you go to GoodReads.com (at least, that’s where Google Books sent me–which offered only snippet view of the text, so while a copy may not be all that readily available, it is still under copyright and is not in the public domain): The Foxes of Harrow

  • The books I read that he wrote were historical novels and were very interesting about putting Black people in hostoricla contexts. They also had lots of sex. :-)

  • sosgemini

    So, I guess that makes him the Halle Berry of authors. :lol:

  • Thanks for the Yerby post…Good to see stuff out there, as I think he’s gonna end up being part of my dissertation.

    Loving Shadow & Act!

  • Jacetoon

    Alexander Dumas or Alexander Pushkin.

  • If I’d seen that post, I would have mentioned Yerby. He wrote big, lusty historical novels similar to Kathleen Windsor (author of “Forever Amber”) and it I’m not mistaken, left America because of the racial climate. His situation is interesting because it brings up the sharp edge of race and art: if a regular old white American can write stories about Native Americans (Katherine O’Neal Gear) or 19th century British aristocrats (go browse the historical fiction section at Borders or B&N) without touching upon real injustices against people, why are black writers only supposed to write about black “issues” and the “struggle”? Millenia Black again).

  • Candace

    You also might look at the work of Willard Motley out of Chicago related to the renowned artist Archibald Motley whose books Knock on Any Door and Let No Man Write My Epitaph were filmed in the ’40s and centered around an Italian-American. Our history never followed just one stream and the more folks know about it and our own diversity the better for us all..

  • Tee

    I love this site! I am always learning something new :)

  • DFD

    Just wading in on this, albeit a few days late, but I would have thought Alexandre Dumas (1921 film of The Three Musketeers with Douglas Fairbanks) would have been the first black author to be adapted to film by a Hollywood studio?

    I mean I know he was quarter black, making him of mixed race descent, but he referred to himself as ‘un negro’ and growing up in the 1800′s people labeled him a black man. Much in the same way W.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Bob Marley and even Barak Obama are mixed but since as black. I don’t want to take away from the achievements of mixed race people, I guess I’m just acknowledging their blackness from a historical/social/cultural perspective. Does anyone else agree? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

    Just another quick note, there are countless other adaptations of Dumas’s work pre 1921 however I don’t think their studio projects, the Douglas Fairbanks pic was made by his own ‘studio’ but if anyone else knows any different please enlighten us.