Remembering the Radical Life of Former Student Vonetta McGee, Blaxploitation's Forgotten Hero
VICE, BROADLY -- McGee was born in 1945, an objectively awful time for African-American actresses. Before the late 60s, roles were rare, and pretty insulting. “There weren’t many multidimensional roles for [Black women] beyond ‘The Mammy’ or ‘The Exotic Other,’” says Yvonne D. Sims, the author of Women of Blaxploitation: How The Black Heroine Changed American Popular Culture, pointing to Hattie McDaniel’s loyal “mammy” in Gone With the Wind and Dorothy Dandridge’s recurrent exoticized roles in movies like Sundown and Tarzan’s Peril.
This environment served as the backdrop to McGee’s years at San Francisco State College. She studied pre-law and acted with racially conscious black theatre group Aldridge Players West. Eventually, McGee dropped out of college and jetted abroad to seek acting work. In 1968, she landed major roles in the Italian films Faustina and The Great Silence. Her risk had paid off — though director Alex Cox, who cast McGee in his 1984 film Repo Man, speculates that her international start may have hindered her longevity.