By Charlene B. Regester
9 actresses, from Madame Sul-Te-Wan in delivery of a kingdom (1915) to Ethel Waters in Member of the marriage (1952), are profiled in African American Actresses. Charlene Regester poses questions on winning 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 focus on their contributions to cinema within the first half the 20 th century, taking an educated theoretical, ancient, and demanding method. (2011)
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Following her exit from the picture, another white woman takes her place as a signifier of white femaleness, which effectively erases the white woman’s being signified as evil and leaves the association of evil related to the occult to rest only with her black companion, Ruva. 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.
68 As the film develops these racial and sexual complexities, it associates the handmaiden (played by Sul-Te-Wan) with the natives’ sacrificial ceremonies, rendering them as Other and referring to them as “queer” and thus demonstrating the handmaiden’s linkage with the world of the occult. The film designates the white woman as victim and the black woman (handmaiden) as a principal agent through which the white woman’s victimization occurs. The handmaiden signifies evil—a signifier that both the presence of the monster and the film’s narrative reifies.
Furthermore, she maintained this career in cinema for nearly half a century (1915–1959), despite her declining physical appeal with the onset of old age, the fluctuating economic whims of the cinema industry, and competition from emerging actresses. In film history, she is one of the few black actresses to sustain such a long career. Although relegated to the space of the invisible, she used her invisibility to render herself visible. Donald Bogle surmised that “Madame Sul-Te-Wan, however, remained a grizzled, tough Hollywood fighter to the bitter end.
African American actresses: the struggle for visibility, 1900-1960 by Charlene B. Regester