Her performance hit us like a meteorite. It was a rich portrayal of a Black girl we had never seen on screen. Girls of my generation remember Irene Cara from the movie, Sparkle. My friends and I were enchanted by her innocence and beauty, as well as the grit, tenacity, and magnetism she displayed in that “come-up” performance—so much so that that one of my friends named her daughter Sparkle. Sparkle was pretty, with complex dimensions, so we saw ourselves in her. But we were even more captivated by Cara’s spirited rendering of Bertha Palmer—who married Simon Haley—and became the mother of author, Alex Haley. In Roots, his best-selling masterpiece, Alex Haley told the epic, groundbreaking story of tracing his genealogy back to his African ancestral village. This was astounding, because most Black people had no idea from which African country and village our families descended. All that history seemed irretrievably lost.
The residents of 22.5 million households who saw some part of Roots: The Second Generation, and witnessed Cara as Bertha, saw a breathtaking persona—smart, playful, willful, sweet, compelling, and deeply in love with her beau, Simon Haley, (as played by Dorian Harewood) and his obvious genius. Her Tennessee drawl in the mini-series revealed her young, sentient love with seriousness, purpose, and power—a fullness rarely depicted in the myriad unidimensional Hollywood Black stereotypes.
Then Simon enlisted in the war, to “fight for democracy” even though it did not extend to him or his people. The scene with the train picking up steam, pulling out of the station, and Bertha, crying, running alongside it until the platform ended and a guardrail restrained her, broke all of us. Her layered performance, sensibilities structured just right, and the pathos she evoked, was a heartrending, but welcomed, relief from what we called the “honey chile” characterizations of Black women in one emotional gear, loud and wisecracking, devoid of the range of emotions that we knew Black women and girls routinely exhibited. Here was an exquisite performance that animated the intricacies we observed in ourselves, our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, cousins, and friends, all of whom lived, loved, lost and won.
Bertha and Simon were the people we had learned about in our families—smart, capable human beings trying to survive Jim Crow. They were heirs to their ingenious family members who had (like ours) survived the cruelty and trauma of a slave institution that made it possible for others to activate the brutal audacity necessary to “own” human beings and plunder the wealth made possible by their hard labor. Simon Alexander Haley earned a master’s degree at Cornell and became a professor of agriculture and dean at Alabama A&M University, an HBCU, working against sometimes indifferent, and often devastating, forces. So, when the vibrant Bertha became sick and died young, leaving behind small children and her beloved husband, it was painful to watch. Simon was on the precipice of making a significant contribution, at a college set up to educate Black students hungry for knowledge, so her death felt like an assault. It was searing, it hit hard, and it intermingled with the tough life and world we had come to understand that we had to navigate.
Those roles and others came before Cara inhabited the game-changing persona of Coco Hernandez in Fame, the movie that blasted her to worldwide stardom. In real life, Cara, who had been a dynamic child performer on Broadway, Spanish language tv, and in shows like PBS’s The Electric Company, seemed to personify the buoyant determination that spirited Bertha. Rising at a time when it was still difficult for Blacks to grasp the financial rewards that matched their powerful impact on the culture, Cara’s turn in Fame epitomized the talent and gut-wrenching labor, sweat, tears, tenacity, and mental toughness required to make it big as a Black performer. And she ascended as a highly disciplined singer, dancer, and actress dedicated to her craft. When Irene crossed the boundary into commercially viable pop music, a category where few Blacks resided, (Fame in 1980 and Flashdance in 1984), she had arrived before the full-blown glow up of Whitney, Janet, Mariah and then Beyoncé. She was to be the pathfinder, and the sacrificial Black woman, for that type of 1980s and 90s superstardom.
She was exploited in the industry, like so many Blacks whose moneymaking ability was plundered, who never earned what their talent commanded because of scurrilous, unscrupulous “managers, “agents,” and “Hollywood types.” But people like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Nina Simone, came out of an era where they literally punched their way to the top. “We’re a winner,” sang Curtis Mayfield, and the fight to the top was reified, even though it had always been difficult to be a Black entertainer, no matter how gifted and electrifying.
So, when Cara burst through, dazzling and intoxicating, roaring, “Remember my name,” we thought we would see success because of the efforts of people like Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye who had demanded creative independence and the right to really get paid. But the same avarice, exploitation, and demonization was still at play, resting on a strong foundation of racism, discrimination, and a galling sense of entitlement to Black people’s intellectual property, chipping at the wealth and freedom that many of our creative geniuses deserve. Still, Irene, came along when there was some expectation that some of that could be overcome—her light shone so bright—even though it is such a toxic brew to overcome. By the early 80s, with Fame, Flashdance, an Academy Award and two Grammy awards for music under her belt, Cara had “arrived” while still in her twenties. Or so we thought. Then it all seemed to fade to dark, a savage twist for someone so promising.
In fact, Cara was still performing, most notably in films like Sister, Sister and as Mrylie Evers in For Us, The Living, but, she did not star in big budget movies, nor did she take home the kind of income one would expect for someone of her stature. She ended up entangled in an eight year lawsuit against her record company, and won a $1.5 million jury award in 1993. It was a gutsy move that, no doubt, sparked anger in the ruthless entertainment world, and she says she was “virtually blacklisted.” Cara said she began to hear rumors that she was a “diva,” “on drugs,” and “difficult” to work with. She told People magazine, “I went through my bitter, angry periods because these people took so much from me.”
Whatever vitality they took from Cara, I hope she always knew how much she inspired young Black girls. Online, after her death, so many performers, especially female, cited her all around talent and the grit she embodied as part of the inspiration for their own willingness to try. Viola Davis was effusive with her love, and the ultimate all around entertainer, actress, dancer, director, producer, Debbie Allen, called Irene a “gifted and beautiful genius” and she exhorted everyone to “remember her name.” We will.
© Rhonda Sherrod