Black Beauties To Know And Love: Actress Marpessa Dawn

February 27, 2014  |  
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In our last Black Beauties To Know And Love, we wanted to show a little love to actress and singer Marpessa Dawn. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s not a surprise, because Dawn’s career wasn’t the lengthiest. However, her beauty was well-known. With the Oscars airing on Sunday, we thought we’d showcase the talents of Philly-born Dawn, whose acting work helped her film, Black Orpheuswin Best Foreign Film at the 1959 Academy Awards. That same film was a major influence for artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and according to President Barack Obama, one of his late mother’s favorite movies . Get to know more about her life and legacy.

Despite making a big splash in Europe, Marpessa Dawn was born in Pittsburgh, to parents of African American and Filipino background.

Dawn moved to Europe as a teenager after a short stint working as a lab tech in New York. Dawn faced a lot of racial discrimination while living in the States, and she hoped for more acceptance in Europe.

She did a little TV work in England, but when she moved to France in 1953, she got her big break. She met director Marcel Camus, who picked her to play the lead role of Eurydice in his film, Black Orpheus. Dawn was only 24.

Black Orpheus was a huge hit in France (though it was shot in Brazil). It won the Palme d’Or in 1959, which is the highest prize a film can receive at the Cannes Film Festival. The film also picked up an Academy Award in 1960 for Best Foreign Language Film.

As her fame expanded, Dawn was featured in Ebony as well as a plethora of other magazines in the States and abroad in the late ’50s, especially most of the major ones in Paris.

But her work in Black Orpheus would be the most notoriety Dawn would receive in her acting career. By the early ’60s she was obtaining small roles in French TV shows, French theater and a few movies here and there.

Once things didn’t pan out for Dawn as an actress, she moved on to singing in nightclubs and working in a few homes as a governess (educating other people’s children).

Dawn actually married Black Orpheus director Marcel Camus, but they divorced very quickly. Dawn went on to marry Belgian actor Eric Vander and they ended up having five children together and four grandchildren.

Dawn passed away at the age of 74 on August 25 in 2008 (you can check out an image of her when she was older here). She died of a heart attack, coincidentally, 41 days after her Black Orpheus leading man, Breno Mello. While Dawn’s career wasn’t as drawn out as other black actresses of that time, her legacy was huge in France and her beauty was timeless.

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