From José Ferrer to Benicio del Toro, over the years Puerto Rican actors have helped carve out an important space for Latino stars in Hollywood, with Ferrer holding the distinction of being the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award for 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac. But few may know that one of the most influential and critically acclaimed Puerto Rican actors in the history of Hollywood was actually a black man, Juano Hernández, whose career in the pictures predated that of Ferrer by over twenty years.
Largely forgotten even in his native Puerto Rico, Hernández is considered by film historians to be a trailblazing actor who revolutionized the representation of black characters on the big screen. With a prolific career spanning over 50 years, his breakout role in a filmed adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) earned him a Golden Globe nomination and glowing praise from international critics and even Faulkner himself. Here, we take a look back at the life of this humble artist who all but changed Hollywood with his unmistakable charisma and talent.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico (then still part of Spain) in 1896 to a Puerto Rican father and Brazilian mother, accounts of Hernández’s early childhood differ. According to a 2000 Puerto Rican made for TV documentary on his life, Hernández was left orphaned at an young age and sent to live with an aunt in Rio de Janeiro. Losing his aunt a few short years later, Hernández was left to fend for himself and took to performing on the streets of Brazil with a gang of friends. Thanks to his natural-born predilection for performing, Juano was soon picked up by a traveling circus and worked his way around the Americas before hopping over to New Orleans at the tender age of 16.
Once settled in the United States, Hernández set about perfecting his English and developed his multifaceted artistic talents by singing in a church choir, writing radio scripts for CBS, and eventually acting on Broadway, where he made an impressive career for himself in diverse roles. After a brief appearance as a Mexican soldier in the infamous 1914 feature The Life of General Villa, Hernández began his career on the big screen acting in producer-director Oscar Micheaux’ depression-era “race films” which featured black performers and were targeted towards black audiences.
Famed for his big, sympathetic eyes, commanding voice, and incomparable stage presence, Hernández’s eventual mainstream success with Intruder in the Dust opened the door for a series of groundbreaking roles under the guidance of illustrious directors like Michael Curtiz and Sydney Lumet. Later in life, Hernández returned to his native Puerto Rico where he taught English at the University of Puerto Rico and served as a mentor for young artists and filmmakers like Jacobo Morales. He continued acting in Hollywood productions until his death in 1970.
Here’s a look back at some of his more prominent roles.
The Girl From Chicago
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Thugs, racketeering and murder – this classic race film featured Hernández as Gomez, a big shot Cuban racketeer with an over-the-top accent and plenty of Spanish exclamations. A federal agent liberates his lover from the grips of a local Mississippi thug and flees with her to Harlem. Somewhere along the line Gomez gets killed.
Intruder in the Dust
Director: Clarence Brown
Based on the Faulkner novel of the same name, Hernández plays Lucas Beauchamp, an impoverished Mississippi farmer unjustly accused of murdering a white man. Noteworthy for its dignified portrayal of Hernández’s African-American character, the film ultimately won a BAFTA award and garnered Hernández a Golden Globe nomination for “New Star of the Year.”
Young Man With A Horn
Director: Michael Curtiz
Playing second fiddle (or in this case, horn) to Hollywood heavyweights like Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day, Hernández showed he still knew how steal a scene as jazz trumpeter Art Hazzard in this biopic of groundbreaking white jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke.
Mark of the Hawk
Director: Michael Audley
Already into his 60s, Hernández played Amugu, a member of the indigenous resistance to British landowners in colonial Africa. This one was played alongside Sydney Poitier and Eartha Kitt, in case you thought he had fallen off by now.