One may know much about film history, or any aspect of history. But there always is something new to discover; there always is something new to learn. Over the summer, while visiting the Kent Museum of the Moving Image, located a couple hours outside London, I was struck by a poster of an otherwise unfamiliar film. Its title is POOL OF LONDON. It dates from 1951. One of its stars is an actor by the name of Earl Cameron. While I do not know every British actor, this one in particular is of special note for several reasons. His birth year is 1917 and, last I heard, he is still with us. So he is over 100 years old! He has, across the decades, appeared in countless feature films and short films, TV series and TV movies. At a time in which the Bermuda-born Cameron appeared in POOL OF LONDON, he was breaking ground as a black actor who was not primarily playing black stereotypes.
POOL OF LONDON is a film noir tale that deals head-on with the issue of racial prejudice. Cameron stars as a black merchant seaman, and the story deals with the everyday racism with which he is surrounded. Plus, there is a tentative romantic relationship with a young woman who is desirable-- and Caucasian! This is quite remarkable for any film, from any country, that dates from almost 70 years ago. POOL OF LONDON is like so many American films of the era that deal with racism. Here, Cameron’s character cannot battle prejudice on his own. He must depend upon the defense of a friendly and supportive white male.
But the key here is the presence and performance of Earl Cameron. This was his first screen role. As noted by the British Film Institute, he “demonstrates a remarkable range....It is an extraordinarily affecting performance, arguably his finest.”
Across the decades, as I say, Cameron has appeared in a range of films and TV shows. While researching his credits, one only can respond with a loud and impressive “WOW!” But at the same time, why did he not become a major international star? Does his background and skin color play a role here? Was he hampered by the era in which he came of age?
Today, of course, there are countless black actors who also are major film stars. But in the 1950’s, there was just one token actor. That of course was Sidney Poitier-- and there were no black female actors. Still, Earl Cameron remains a fascinating figure in film history. More should be known about him. But ultimately, he and so many others are products of their time.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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