You might not have heard of or seen Francine Everett in film because she did not achieve the attention, success and popularity with white cinema audiences. However, her appearances in “race” movies elevated her to fame in America’s black community.
The African-American filmmaker and producer William Greaves said of her: “She would have been a superstar in Hollywood were it not for the apartheid climate in America and the movie industry at the time.”
Everett, born in 1915 in Louisburg, North Carolina, moved with her family to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Over there, she attended New York City’s St. Marks School and then became a chorus girl in New York’s popular entertainment venues, including the Savoy Ballroom and Small’s Paradise.
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So early on we see Everett as a singer and dancer, who by 1933 was performing with a night-club act called the Four Black Cats.
By age 15, Francine had married Booker Everett, but became a widow at 17. In 1935, she then went to work with the Federal Theater Project in Harlem, where she met her second husband, actor Rex Ingram whom she married in 1936. The couple married and moved to Hollywood and while there, got an offer to feature in the all-black cast film The Green Pastures. While Ingram accepted a triple-lead role in the film, Everett citing Hollywood’s racially discriminatory climate declined the offer.
With the couple divorcing in 1939, Everett returned to Harlem where she appeared in a number of “soundies”, (pre-cursor to music videos). She also made her film debut having commenced her acting career with the Negro People’s theater in Harlem, one of the theatres sponsored by the Works Progress Administration to give employment to needy actors. Her first film starred boxing champion Henry Armstrong in Keep Punching (1939). She played the hometown sweetheart who rescues a legendary prizefighter from wine and women.
By the mid-1940s, Everett was appearing as the leading lady in a number of “race” movies which were made by independent African American filmmakers who avoided the negative stereotypes of mainstream films. They featured all-black casts and were created exclusively for distribution to Black cinemas that catered to African-American audiences.
Everett was the leading lady in such films such as ‘Paradise in Harlem’ (1939) and ‘Stars on Parade’. In 1946 she starred in Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA.
Everett also took on modeling and singing to make money. As a vocalist, she featured alongside greats such as Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway. As a popular model she featured in fashion and cosmetic advertisements throughout the 1940s in print ads, magazines and newspapers.
Independent film-makers like Spencer Williams were able to make use of Everett’s talents. Urban black audiences could identify with the earthiness of Everett, something lacking in Hollywood and white audience black stars like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Hazel Scott.
Despite appearing in the most important films of Black Cinema, Hollywood still felt Everett ought to pay her dues by playing maid roles first, but she refused.
Dirty Gertie From Harlem, USA was directed by Spencer Williams, one of the few African-Americans to be found working behind the camera in the 1940s. Everett also appeared in other “race” movies including Toot that Trumpet (1943), Big Timers (1945), Tall, Tan and Terrific (1946), ‘Ebony Parade’ (1947) which also starred Dorothy Dandridge.
Having played roles in two Hollywood movies, Lost Boundaries (1949) and Sidney Poitier’s first film, No Way Out (1950), Everett retired from show business. She held a clerical job at Harlem Hospital until her retirement in 1985. She passed away in a Nursing home in the Bronx, in NY, in May of 1999.
Befitting then that Ms. Everett was called ”the most beautiful woman in Harlem.”