By the time Diahann Carroll made her phantasmal appearance in Eve’s Bayou (1997), one of her final film performances, she had already lived enough lives to find herself hemmed into certain roles for good: Marion Gilbert, Dominique Deveraux, Claudine. She was by then among the last gilded idols that remained of Hollywood’s mid-century pantheon. But what endured above all was the face she turned to the world: a perennial portrait of bourgeoisie glamor—spotted furs and glittering pearl gowns (she was partial to silver and white, it seems)—an image that made her an unlikely choice for Kasi Lemmons’s Southern Gothic melodrama.
Carroll, as the enigmatic, fortune-telling witch Elzora, becomes a classical harbinger of death for the film’s 10-year-old protagonist Eve Batiste (so, too, for the eight-year-old watching in a shadowy living room far past permissible hours). When Eve decides to rid her family of her adulterous, possibly incestuous father, it is to Elzora she goes, armed with a fistful of his hair and $20 to procure his death. Carroll spends much of her screen time with her face painted chalk white, a lone black dot between her eyebrows: Black skin, white mask—in tribute, it turns out, to Erzulie, the Vodou loa (deity) of love, an icon of multiplicity and defiance, and a fitting figure for the actress to embody as she approached the culmination of her career. Of course, no amount of face paint could disguise Carroll’s stately beauty, possessed of something vaguely leonine, graced with a regal angularity and her simmering, feline gaze. But few images are more striking to a child than a mask that is so obviously a mask; one that betrays its own deception and barely conceals—as no thing ever could—the steel of the woman behind it. I was haunted by that face for years before I ever learned Carroll’s name.
My mother first knew her as Julia Baker, the widowed single mother and middle-class nurse of the NBC television sitcom bearing her name. Julia (1968-1971) reliably flung Carroll—already a well decorated actress—into overnight celebrity: star of the first weekly series helmed by a Black woman who was not playing a domestic worker or some other prevailing stereotype, but a working professional. This only narrowly passed for progress even then. The response to Julia was mixed. Amid the high profile assassinations of Black leaders, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the ongoing Vietnam War (which had claimed the life of Julia’s fictional husband), the show’s spurious race relations divided critics and audiences alike. There were, too, objections to a portrait of prosperity that certain observers felt opposed the reality of Black life—never mind that Carroll herself hailed from Harlem’s middle class. Tasked to defend the show’s “authenticity,” she famously conceded, “The needs of the white writer go to the superhuman being. At the moment, we are presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negro-ness.”
Indeed, Black actresses found their ways, privately or otherwise, to mutiny against the stifling visions of Black womanhood that dominated the screen. Others surrendered entirely to the exigent pull of activism, for which they risked exile from whatever corner of Hollywood they managed to secure. When Carroll speaks of the “white Negro,” she is telling us, however circumspect, about a lasting representational system where no image can truly be independent of whiteness; whether in their rebellion or their imitation, they all spring from the same well of respectability, oriented around an outside gaze.
But Carroll would often test the bounds of symbolic Blackness with impunity. Television would generally prove more fertile terrain for her, although 16 years would pass before she would find another pioneering role to rival the popularity of Julia Baker: tempestuous chanteuse Dominique Devereaux, “the first Black bitch on television,” on the ABC soap opera Dynasty. In part, Carroll owed her success to a certain dogged familiarity onscreen, modestly peopled by her predecessors (Fredi Washington, Lena Horne) and peers (Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt): all—like Carroll—slender, light-skinned Black women of astonishing beauty, their hair always slickly coiffed, their talents exceptional. It could be no other way. But stardom offered no respite from their core condition.
A brief and incomplete survey of those early years: she was born Carol Diann Johnson in the Bronx; as a teenager she began entering televised talent competitions, namely ABC’s “Chance of a Lifetime,” which she won, at just 18, for three consecutive weeks; this triumph landed her $3,000 and a singing engagement at Latin Quarter, the swanky Manhattan nightclub where Carroll credits the trans performer Christine Jorgensen with cultivating her stage presence. That same year, she made her film debut in Otto Preminger’s all-Black musical Carmen Jones (1954), starring Dandridge, who would become the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Carroll had originally auditioned for the lead, but Preminger cast the teenager instead as Carmen’s modish friend Myrt, a minor role that nonetheless paired her with another icon, Pearl Bailey. A few years later she reunited with them all—Preminger, Dandridge, and Bailey—for Porgy & Bess (1959) as the pure-hearted Clara, whose lullaby “Summertime” (dubbed by Loulie Jean Norman), sung to her baby, opens the film. Meanwhile, Carroll enjoyed unprecedented success on the stage. A Tony nomination arrived in 1954 for House of Flowers and in 1962, her first Tony win—the first for any Black woman in lead—for the Richard Rodgers musical about a fashion model’s whirlwind romance in Paris, No Strings.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Her ascent was far from assured or, for that matter, unencumbered, but she made as yet uncommon strides that otherwise perilous decade. In 1961, she starred in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues alongside Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Sidney Poitier, who had become Carroll’s lover after they met filming Porgy & Bess. Carroll and Woodward play American schoolteachers who fall madly for a pair of expatriate jazz musicians (Poitier and Newman, Woodward’s real-life husband) in Paris. A more faithful adaptation of Harold Flender’s 1957 novel would have given precedence to the relationship between Carroll’s Connie Lampson and Poitier’s Eddie Cook, who was, in fact, the novel’s central character. In the translation to film, Newman’s mercurial Ram Bowen absorbs nearly all focus. Elsewhere, Carroll and Poitier are left to stage a curiously chaste affair. For her part, Carroll summons impressive stores of depth as the catalyst for Eddie’s mounting social consciousness, after his years tucked away in the (deceptively) friendlier streets of Paris. There is, for instance, such pain, wallpapered with unspoken, intimate worlds, in her response when Eddie begs her to stay: “Please don’t ask me to do that,” she says, her eyes shut to his pleading gaze.
In those performances of Carroll’s committed to the screen, one can trace visible attempts to instate something detailed and intricate with marginal space. She was a woman too conspicuously charged with pride to ever truly be flattened into archetypes—“the ingénue” or “the girlfriend”—although filmmakers certainly tried. Hurry Sundown (1967) would mark Carroll’s third collaboration with Preminger, woefully outmatched by the material: a retrograde tale about the tenuous, interracial union between two Southern farmers who refuse to sell their lands to a wealthy, greedy racist. Carroll plays the Black farmer’s love interest with characteristic poise, but the film was a spectacular failure, an awkward vestige, even by that era’s measures, of erstwhile race fables—laden with patronizing tropes—and best remembered now for its troubled production. (Shot in Louisiana, local businesses refused to serve the cast and Black crew; Preminger, known for antagonizing his leading ladies, tormented Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda on set; and the hostility from locals rose to such volatile zeniths that Carroll refused to go out at night.)
She took a vaguely fleshier role in Gordon Flemyng’s more successful heist thriller The Split (1968) opposite football star Jim Brown as McClain, a suave thief. Carroll, as McClain’s ex-wife Ellie, boasted second-billing in a cast that included Julie Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, and a then-unknown Canadian making the crossover from London, Donald Sutherland. She imbued these roles with the arresting conviction that had long come to define her screen presence. Carroll once described what she called “the business of carriage,” or, “how you convey to the audience who is in charge without causing friction.” For all her refinement, this was her eternal signature: an elegant marriage of reserve and mettle, as if always in command of the hurricane within.
Paris Blues (1961)
If the preceding years are to be understood, fundamentally, as an unofficial study in diplomacy—restraint that bordered on abstemiousness—the opportunity finally came for Carroll to unveil that ever rumbling tempest in Claudine (1974). Notably, Carroll is cast starkly against type; she would cogently upend, for a moment at least, her aristocratic persona to play a welfare-dependent single mother, a phantom of right-wing malevolence that had thoroughly infected American consciousness. At 36, Claudine is raising six children. They live in Harlem, where they are forced to bear humiliating surveillance from social workers, which compels them to hide any perceived valuables or evidence of a man in the house, lest the state snatch away their benefits. But things grow complicated when Claudine falls in love with Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones), a garbage collector, who soon endears himself as a father figure.
The poetry of Claudine is this simple but hard-won protest: the preservation of the Black family, its freedom from constant policing and intrusion. Just as urgently, the film advocates for sexuality—Black women’s in particular—as the precious province of autonomy. Thus, Claudine pivots upon the significant calculus of Carroll’s artful performance. She is at once spirited, fearless, ashamed, possessive, desperate but never pathetic, proud but still vulnerable. Somehow the manifold contours of this character do not slip into the erratic; Carroll renders with crisp coherence the fullness of this woman, textured and sprawling. She has never been more radiant.
Exactly 20 years after Dandridge was nominated for Carmen, Carroll arrived at the Academy Awards to celebrate her own Best Actress nomination for Claudine. She did not win, but you couldn’t tell from looking at photos: she was incandescent and queenly in a glimmering, finely detailed, nude Bob Mackie gown, draped in—at least part of the night—a floor-length velvet cloak replete with a mammoth fur collar that cradled her head like royalty.
When Carroll passed away in 2019 from breast cancer complications, aged 84, she left behind this dazzling, not-uncomplicated model of opulence. For those revisiting her work today, the unwavering vision of dignity that she forged feels even more precious, though, as if somehow smuggled onscreen. It’s there in her myriad singing appearances, in the Dynasty spinoff The Colbys, then later, in her classically sophisticated performance in Robert Townsend’s R&B drama The Five Heartbeats (1991), and her regrettably dismissed turn in Eve’s Bayou. She appears lit from within by some inextinguishable force. This was always her true crown.
Dr. Kelli Weston is a Brooklyn-based programmer and writer whose work has been published in Sight & Sound, The New York Times, and The Guardian among other publications.