With “Hidden Figures” on its way to a $150+ million global box office take (it’s currently at $146 million; $133 million of that is domestic), a question that’s been asked more than a few times is whether the surprise (to some) success of the film about 3 “hidden figures” of American history will lead to even more studio films about other “hidden figures” – specifically, films that celebrate overlooked or *unknown* black women who have made contributions at pivotal moments in American history. It’s a question that’s almost always asked every time a film with a black cast performs very well at the box office. “Is it a fluke?”, some studio executives might ask? “You mean to tell me black people actually want to see varied representations of themselves on screen? Really? But will non-black people watch too?”
You know how it typically goes… it’s become a running joke around these parts of the web.
Needless to say, there are many stories about black women from America’s past (and present) that deserve to be told on screen; some of them are currently in development, like the 2 Harriett Tubman films that are coming (one for HBO, the other for theatrical release); also there are big and small screen projects in the works on Henrietta Lacks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Madam C. J. Walker, Misty Copeland, Angela Davis and more. See our list of 60+ biopics on black public figures in Limbo post to catch up if you missed it.
But here’s a recommendation for a name that likely isn’t as well-known as the above-mentioned: the late pioneering artist Jackie Ormes (1911-1985) who has received the designation as America’s first black female professional cartoonist.
Born Zelda Mavin Jackson, Ormes’ life reads quite intriguing, as her work as a cartoonist provided more than just entertainment (poignant or otherwise) for her readers. She was devoted to leftist causes in her time. The F.B.I. is said to have had a 287-page file on her, thanks in part to her sometimes politically pointed comics/cartoons, in which she touched on hot topics of the day like racial segregation, cold war politics, educational equality, the atom bomb, environmental pollution, among other pressing issues of her time. Her most popular comic characters were Torchy Brown (the 1st black syndicated comic), Candy, and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, which were all featured in newspapers, and spawned other products, including a black doll with her own stylish collection.
She drew cartoons for her high school yearbook and already had a job writing and proofreading for the Pittsburgh Courier by graduation. In 1937 she began her first comic strip, “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem,” while working at the Courier. Torchy Brown, the protagonist, was a teenager from Mississippi who found her way to the famous Cotton Club as a singer and dancer. The strip featured well-developed and realistic black characters at a time when most comics confined black characters to racist stereotypes and comic relief.
Ormes was also a socialite, and member of Chicago’s black elite; hobnobbing with the powerful of the day, politicians and entertainers. All very fascinating stuff, considering the era in which she lived, and her rather interesting cosmopolitan, social activist life, as both a socialite and a pioneering comic artist.
Ormes, who passed away in 1985, most certainly deserves to be celebrated as a pioneer in the comics community. Her memory still lives on as, just last fall, a historical marker was raised in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, in honor of Ormes, where she grew up.
A film (whether fiction or documentary) on her life (or some specific period of it) is definitely in order. Diversity in the comic/cartoon space is still very much a topic of considerable discussion today, so her story would cross several fault lines, touching a variety of present-day issues.
As of the time of this post, we’re not aware of any films or TV projects on Ormes’ life that are currently in the works; although that might change as studio execs scramble (maybe) to find the next “Hidden Figures.”
While we wait for that to happen, a biopic in book form does exist; Penned by Nancy Goldstein, the 2008 book is titled “Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist,” and you can pick up a copy on Amazon.com right now here.
Below, you’ll find a very brief 1953 profile of Ormes on YouTube. And underneath that, a much longer, 30-minute tribute to Ormes that took place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City a month ago. It goes more in depth about Ormes and her work as a cartoonist than this post does, and is worth a watch.
And here’s the Schomburg Center tribute that took place at the 5th installment of its annual Black Comic Book Festival: