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

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By Charlene B. Regester

9 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 triumphing racial politics, on-screen and off-screen identities, and black stardom and white stardom. She unearths how those girls 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 half the 20 th century, taking an educated theoretical, historic, and demanding strategy. (2011)

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Additional resources for African American actresses: the struggle for visibility, 1900-1960

Example text

In the early years of American cinema, the mainstream (Hollywood) film industry frequently prohibited African American actors and actresses from depicting themselves on the screen. Such denial was a means the industry used to render African Americans invisible, as white actors often assumed black roles in blackface. This performative behavior was empowering to whites because it allowed them to vicariously experience blackness. At the same time, it was disempowering to blacks because whites ultimately controlled the black image.

Peter Stanfield notes, “While serving her sentence, [Stanwyck as Taylor] plays an instrumental version of ‘St. Louis Blues’ on a phonograph to cover the sound of prisoners trying to dig their way out. The choice of the song fits neatly alongside 34â•… ·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 the film’s exploitation of abject and vulgar femininity, as displayed by Stanwyck’s character and the other inmates. ” 79 According to one critic, Ladies They Talk About is effective when it is describing the behavior of the prisoners, the variety of their misdemeanors, their positions in the social whirl outside, their ingenuity in giving an intimate domestic touch to the prison, and their frequently picturesque way of exhibiting pride, jealousy, vanity and other untrammeled feminine emotions.

As Sul-Te-Wan gained some acting experience, she formed her own company, the Black Four Hundred, which consisted of sixteen performers and twelve musicians. 14 As an abandoned wife and mother, Sul-Te-Wan sought help from J. W. Coleman, an employment agent who got assistance for her from the Forum Club, an organization devoted to cultural presentations and designed to assist those in need of food and shelter. Adamant that her family would not accept charity, Sul-Te-Wan agreed to her oldest son’s proposal that the family sing for the attendees at the Forum Club in order to earn the benefits the family received.

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