Actress Vonetta McGee died July 9, in Berkeley, Calif., after experiencing cardiac arrest and remaining on life support for two days.
Although I haven’t seen this actor’s work in some time, her passing struck sadness in my heart, because she was one of my ‘she-roes.’
McGee was an extremely talented woman with a beautiful face, but what made her standout to me were her incredible smile and her eyes that screamed life and love. She was indeed a fine actress, and I believed in my heart that she would grow old doing what she loved to do–performing in front of an audience or camera. But Hollywood had different ideas.
McGee’s star began to rise during the 1970s, which is commonly called the ‘Blaxploitation film era.’ I never liked or understood that term and neither did McGee.
According to AOL Black Voices, she likened ‘Blaxploitation’ as a label being used “like racism, so you don’t have to think of the individual elements, just the whole. If you study propaganda, you understand how this works,” she was quoted as saying.
And according to the L.A. Times it was written that McGee deplored the term “Blaxploitation.” It wasn’t the “Black” that troubled her–that was a source of pride. It was the “exploitation” label.
“Back in the Day,” Blacks were blacker than black. From our hair to the way we dressed, it displayed Black Pride. And with that sensibility in mind, we went after Hollywood with a vengeance, the thought being, ‘anything Whites can do on screen, we can too.’ We told our stories, be it from the street, family rituals, love entanglements, violence, comedy and oh, yes … battling ‘The Man.’ They were our stories, and for the most part, told our way. And for one fleeting moment, we knew we could take on Hollywood, because our films were already revitalizing a Hollywood that was slowly dying.
McGee was part of that era. In “Blacula” (1972), she portrayed the love interest of Mamuwalde (William Marshall), an African prince who, after visiting Count Dracula in Transylvania centuries earlier, was tricked by the Count and became part of the undead, but not before seeing the love of his life murdered.
He re-emerges in modern Los Angeles as a member of the undead and thirsty for blood. He sees the beautiful reincarnation of the love of his life (McGee), and then it’s on … but he has to deal with Pam Grier’s character first. Okay, yes I liked this movie, as a Dracula fan, I thought William Marshall was excellent, and I loved the storyline.
Reviewing the film in the New York Times, Roger Greenspun called McGee “just possibly the most beautiful woman currently acting in movies.”
In 1972, McGee also starred in the suspenseful melodrama “Melinda.” A screenplay written by Lonne Elder III, this murder mystery starred such actors as Calvin Lockhart and Rosalind Cash.
In “Hammer” (1972), McGee appeared opposite Fred Williamson in the tale of a young black prizefighter.
In “Shaft in Africa” (1973), the third installment in the private-eye series starring Richard Roundtree, she played an emir’s daughter.
McGee’s other films include “The Kremlin Letter” (1970); “Detroit 9000” (1973); and “Thomasine & Bushrod.” In this 1974 film, she played opposite Max Julian (“The Mack”) as the fictional counterpart of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., the film takes place in New Mexico in 1911.
Perhaps her biggest break was when Clint Eastwood nabbed her for the 1975 action-thriller “The Eiger Sanction” which he directed and starred in. Never mind that her character name was Jemima Brown.
Actor Fred Williamson told the Los Angeles Times, “I was pleased to see her get a role with Clint Eastwood, not many Black actors had that opportunity to be in a movie where color doesn’t matter.”
In true Hollywood fashion, McGee met her future husband, actor Carl Lumbly on the set of the 1980s hit drama series “Cagney & Lacey,” while starring in several episodes. “I still remember the first day she came on the set–it was August 21, 1984–and we were scheduled to do a bedroom scene,” Lumbly reflected in a 1989 EBONY magazine profile on celebrity couples. “Later, when we left the set, I realized we were holding hands . . . we married two years later.” The couple had a son, Brandon, in 1988.
Lawrence Vonetta McGee, named for her father, was born in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1945.
While studying pre-law at San Francisco State College, she became involved in community theater. She left college to pursue an acting career.
McGee paved the way for many Black actresses daring to dream the Hollywood dream. This article does not include the full body of McGee’s work. Check out YouTube and other sites for more on this outstanding woman. May her star shine brightly in the heavens.
Gail can be reached at email@example.com.