African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, by Charlene B. Regester

By Charlene B. Regester

Nine actresses, from Madame Sul-Te-Wan in start of a kingdom (1915) to Ethel Waters in Member of the marriage (1952), are profiled in African American Actresses. Charlene Regester poses questions about winning racial politics, on-screen and off-screen identities, and black stardom and white stardom. She finds how those ladies fought for his or her roles in addition to what they compromised (or did not compromise). Regester repositions those actresses to focus on their contributions to cinema within the first half the 20 th century, taking an educated theoretical, ancient, and significant approach.

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In Maid of Salem (1937), Sul-Te-Wan assumed yet another role associated with the occult, this time as Tituba, a voodoo practitioner. The film elicited scathing criticism from the African American press, which took offense at the implication that a black slave, Tituba, had initiated witchcraft at Salem. Bishop Walls of the New York Amsterdam News contended that the film’s distortion of historical fact in its so-called exploration of witchcraft resulted in a gross misrepresentation of African Americans.

Griffith. Half what I’m wearin’ is borrowed and the other half not paid for. But I got three little boys, and I need work—I 22â•… · â•… a f r i c a n a m e r i c a n a c t r e s s e s need work bad. ”20 Perhaps the press was reflecting its own biases regarding Griffith, whom they disliked for his racially provocative The Birth of a Nation and for what they believed was his limited vision of African Americans as purely servile and dangerous. Whichever version is accurate, Sul-Te-Wan’s appearance, which was undoubtedly eccentric, was not offensive to Griffith.

It seems that from the beginning of their acquaintance, an immediate and sustained affection between Sul-Te-Wan and Griffith developed, one of mutual and genuine admiration and affection. 25 Sul-Te-Wan was his bedside companion at his death, and she collapsed during the m a d a m e s u l - t e - wa nâ•… · â•… 23 Hollywood memorial service in his honor. Indeed, the beleaguered black actress and the “cock of the walk” white filmmaker had a strong and lasting relationship, and this may have enabled Sul-Te-Wan to sustain her long career in Hollywood.

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