Vonetta McGee is better known for her roles in several ‘70s blaxploitation films. But ironically, she hated the word “blaxploitation,” compared it to racism, and said she preferred to label the movies as “black-film genre.”
McGee was born in 1945, a time where roles for African American actresses were scarce and mostly insulting. She studied pre-law at San Francisco State College, where she started acting as part of the Black theatre group Aldridge Players West.
She eventually left college before graduating to pursue an acting career, but not in the States.
In 1968, McGee landed her first roles in the Italian films “Faustina” and “The Great Silence.” And although many critics have pointed out that no one really watched those films outside of Italy and Germany, McGee caught the attention of the one and only Sidney Poitier.
He secured her roles in two US films: “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and “The Lost Man,” where she was first introduced to the American audience.
At the time, the Blaxploitation era was steadily emerging in an industry that had been profoundly racist until then. Inspired by the civil rights movement, the genre sought to made of black people the on-screen heroes. There were movies made by black people for black people.
McGee went on to earn leading roles in several blaxploitation films like “Blacula,” “Hammer,” “Detroit 9000, “ and “Shaft in Africa.”
In a “Blacula” review made for The New York Times, writer Roger Greenspun described McGee as “just possibly the most beautiful woman currently acting in movies.”
Although Blaxploitation films indeed increased the visibility of African Americans in Hollywood, the genre faced several critics.
According to Vice, Junius Griffin, a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) representative, “coined the term from the words ‘Black’ and ‘exploitation’ and, along with many others, denounced the genre’s regressive side."
McGee was also a detractor of the term.
She told the LA Times in 1979 that the label was 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.”
Instead, she said she preferred the term “black-film genre.”
After the blaxploitation films started to decline in 1974, McGee’s career kept rising. She took roles in films like “The Kremlin Letter,” “Thomasine & Bushrod,” and “The Eiger Sanction,” where she stared the screen with Clint Eastwood.
She also appeared on TV series such as “Hell Town,” “Bustin’ Loose,” “L.A. Law” and “Cagney & Lacey,” where she met her husband Carl Lumbly, with whom she married in 1986.
McGee never stopped addressing the industry’s racism and unfairness.
When Diana Ross started to appear in films, becoming an example of “equal opportunities” in the industry, McGee argued otherwise. “She has had the luxury of a studio behind her,'' McGee said. ''This is where a lot of us fell short. We all needed a certain amount of protection. But we were on our own.''
After the birth of her son in 1988, McGee became less active on the screen. She worked in just four more films and one TV show until her death in 2010 from after a cardiac arrest. She was 65.
McGee was survived by her husband, Carl Lumbly, who is now 67 and still acting, and their son, Brandon Lumbly.