Elizabeth Taylor Tributes Touch on Race

Few black journalists have much to say about the celebrated movie star.

Story Includes “Cleopatra,” Civil Rights, Michael Jackson

“I did a short story on her when she held a news conference in D.C. to promote the play, ‘The Little Foxes’ that she was starring in at the Warner Theater,” Brenda Wilson, then reporting for NPR, recalled for Journal-isms on Wednesday. “The then Mrs. Warner was a hoot, characterized herself as a ‘bitch,’ charmed us all. The eyes were extraordinary. It was impossible not to be affected by her. Washington must have bored her to tears. And so she didn’t stay. It was back to Hollywood.”

Wilson was talking about Elizabeth Taylor, who died Wednesday of congestive heart failure. Or, as the Daily News in New York put it, “Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed femme fatale whose smoldering talent and eight marriages made her a legend of Hollywood’s golden era, died on March 23, 2011. She was 79.”

Taylor was in Washington in the early 1980s, making her first serious stage debut and participating in what was described as a largely unhappy marriage to then-Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

Few black journalists were commenting on Taylor in the mainstream media on Wednesday, an indication perhaps of how few have access to film critic’s perches in those outlets. There were also indications that Taylor’s appeal might be generational.

On NPR’s “Tell Me More,” guest-hosted by Farai Chideya, Latoya Peterson, creator of the blog Racialicious said, “You know, Farai, what’s interesting is that I don’t know much about Elizabeth Taylor. I’m working my way through a Netflix queue that has ‘Giant’ in it and other things like that. But the only thing I know her for is ‘Cleopatra,’ and it’s only because of the racial implications of her actually playing Cleopatra that I took such a long view at that movie.” There is talk of remaking the epic with Angelina Jolie in the role.

The discussion, with Galina Espinoza, editorial director of Latina magazine, and Marcia Dawkins, visiting scholar at Brown University,  turned to beauty standards.

“Most scholars tend to point to coins that were minted in the time of Cleopatra that showed her with cornrows, right, and what they describe as a hook nose, which automatically means she’s less beautiful than what people thought,” Peterson said. “And I’m, like, wait a minute, was that — was she less beautiful according to our norms now, or according to the norms in ancient Egypt? Or even the norms in Greece or Rome? I think it’s really interesting to see how we are shaping ideas of beauty even now, as we’re looking back.”

Still, Taylor did appeal to audiences of color. Gil Robertson IV, founder and president of the African-American Film Critics Association, said in a statement, “Elizabeth Taylor was a rare example of an entertainer who crossed racial boundaries. Although many in the African American community were highly critical of her for portraying Cleopatra, I think she eventually won us over. She appeared to live her life so [authentically] — going through weight issues, sickness and of course, marriages, marriages and more marriages. It made her seem just like the rest of us and that made her really special.”