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Black History Month: Women in TV & Film - Lena Horne

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Lena Horne was a part of the film and television industry for most of her life as a talented actress, singer, dancer, and trailblazer for women in entertainment.

Horne started her career at 16 by performing in nightclubs in New York City and moved to Los Angeles at a young age. She earned her first movie credit in 1938 for her role in The Duke is Tops.

In 1942, Horne signed a seven-year contract with MGM Studios, becoming the first Black actress in over 25 years to sign a studio contract. Horne often faced systemic racism in Hollywood, and refused to play any role that she felt was demeaning or perpetuated racial stereotypes. Her debut roles with MGM were singing parts in Panama Hattie and Harlem on Parade.

Her early success was not an indication of the future of her career, and after she signed the contract with MGM she was often cast in small stand-alone roles due to the ever-present segregation and film censors in the South. She only had two speaking roles in her career when MGM released Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky in 1943. Later, singing parts Horne was featured in were often cut out of films before they were shown in Southern theaters.

Stormy Weather movie poster
Cabin in the Sky movie poster

Lena Horne went on a USO tour in 1947 where she was outspoken about the treatment of Black soldiers in the military. This led many to believe she held Communist views which resulted in her being blacklisted from the entertainment industry in the 1950s. Her name was removed from the list of Communist Sympathizers in 1953 and she released multiple albums throughout the remainder of her career.

She returned to acting when she appeared as Glinda the Good Witch in the 1978 production of The Wiz. Three years later, Horne opened her Tony and Grammy award winning one woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. Lena continued creating music until her last album was released in 1998.

More recent photo of Lena Horne
Cover art for Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music

She died in 2010 at age 92 of heart failure, however her impact in the entertainment industry for Black women will long stand the test of time.

To watch her first credited movie role in The Duke is Tops, visit and go to our Black History Month Women in Film Collection.


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