African American actresses: the struggle for visibility, by Charlene B. Regester

By Charlene B. Regester

9 actresses, from Madame Sul-Te-Wan in start of a country (1915) to Ethel Waters in Member of the marriage (1952), are profiled in African American Actresses. Charlene Regester poses questions about triumphing racial politics, on-screen and off-screen identities, and black stardom and white stardom. She unearths how those ladies fought for his or her roles in addition to what they compromised (or did not compromise). Regester repositions those actresses to spotlight their contributions to cinema within the first 1/2 the 20 th century, taking an educated theoretical, historic, and demanding process. (2011)

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22 Therefore, it was in this capacity that Sul-Te-Wan worked for these white actresses and made her debut in the cinema industry. The personal nature of her relationship with these white actresses attests both to her indispensability to them and to her invisibility—she provided a service upon which they relied and she assumed a much less powerful position relative to these highly visible stars. 24 Not surprisingly for the times, she secured her first screen role in The Birth of a Nation as a maid, but despite the role’s marginality, it enabled her to demonstrate her talent.

32 Sul-Te-Wan in The Birth of a Nation The film industry’s disempowering of African American actors and actresses during the pre-1950 period has resulted in a partial erasure of its own history. Sul-Te-Wan, unfortunately, presents a prime example of this erasure. Even with her first film, The Birth of a Nation, it is only through rare and obscure reports that we know of her work in the film. For example, I am beholden to Delilah L. Beasley’s Negro Trailblazers of California for reporting that in The Birth of a Nation, Sul-Te-Wan wore a fine gown to represent a colony of educated African Americans and she drove her own coach in a scene designed to reflect upon the “advancement” of African Americans during the postbellum period—a scene that was edited from the film’s final version.

Because of the association of the black woman with evil and the occult, there is a virtual erasure of her rape, presaging and deeming more important the violation of white women’s bodies. This is another way in which Sul-TeWan’s character remains invisible. Later in the film, Kong’s capture becomes symbolic of the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman. As Kong hangs from the Empire State Building, his positioning simulates that of a lynching victim in that “the ghostly post . .

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