Allen “Farina” Hoskins: First African American Movie Star



Today is the birthday of Allen Hoskins (1920-1980) best known for his groundbreaking role as the character “Farina” in Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts.

Hoskins literally grew up in front of the camera. Born in Boston, he was hired for the Our Gang cast in 1922 before he was even two years old. His character was named after the popular breakfast mush, often served by mothers as baby food. Like certain cartoon characters (Krazy Kat comes to mind) Farina was identified neither as male nor female, and played both sex roles as the plot warranted. He was often attired in a dress, and wore a head full of hair bows in the traditional style of the stage “pick” or “pickaninny”, perhaps most indelibly personified by the character of Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Because of this, even though Farina was one of the first African Americans to become a national movie star, and was in one of the first integrated casts, and was better paid than most adults in the county for about a decade, by the second half of the twentieth century he was saddled with this association with a negative stereotype. As with Jolson (whose reputation seems tarnished today on account of The Jazz Singer despite the fact that in his day nearly everyone in show business both black and white performed in blackface at least occasionally), Farina’s rep is brought down for having been a pick…when the reality is, again, he was only the most prominent of hundreds of such performers stretching out across the decades. Today we should look at it with clear eyes. We no longer wish to dehumanize African Americans in how we portray them in movies. But in 1922 most people looked at things quite differently.ourganghead

Farina was the biggest star of Our Gang through its early years of 1922 through 1931, which mostly embraced the silent period and a couple of years of talkies. He was let go when he was 11, and no longer an adorable cherub. He was replaced by Matthew “Stymie” Beard (the kid who wore the derby). This was the period when Farina went into vaudeville for a couple of years, joined onstage by his sister Jannie “Mango” Hoskins (who had also appeared in Our Gang shorts from 1926 to 1929). They were still children at the time; their mother Florence accompanied them on their tour.

From 1932 through 1936, Farina enjoyed a brief solo film career, co-starring with Joe E. Brown and Ginger Rogers in You Said a Mouthful (1932) (in which he is quite good), and getting uncredited bit parts in classics like Reckless (1935), Winterset (1936), and After the Thin Man (1936).  After this, the movie work dried up for good. Hoskins then served in the army for 5 years (1940-1945). After the war, he auditioned for a time, but never got cast. He left Hollywood and moved to the San Francisco area where did odd jobs, then trained to be an aide at psychiatric facilities. Within a decade he was in leadership positions at centers for the disabled, and became a well known public advocate for their welfare, a role in life he occupied until he passed away in 1980.

For more on Our Gang, please check out my 100th anniversary podcast episode here.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc.

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