African American Actresses
The Struggle for Visibility, 1900--1960
Publication Year: 2010
Nine actresses, from Madame Sul-Te-Wan in Birth of a Nation (1915) to Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding (1952), are profiled in African American Actresses. Charlene Regester poses questions about prevailing racial politics, on-screen and off-screen identities, and black stardom and white stardom. She reveals how these women fought for their roles as well as what they compromised (or didn't compromise). Regester repositions these actresses to highlight their contributions to cinema in the first half of the 20th century, taking an informed theoretical, historical, and critical approach.
Published by: Indiana University Press
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As black women during the first half of the twentieth century struggled to transgress the borders of Otherness and emerge as Hollywood actresses in their own right, the mainstream cinema industry erased, marginalized, and devalued them, denied them cinematic voice, and reduced them to the body. In addition, far too often black actresses’ contributions to mainstream cinema have been either minimized or erased in the histories of Hollywood cinema. This examination of representative black actresses in...
1 Madame Sul-Te-Wan: The Struggle for Visibility
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In the prologue to Ralph Ellison’s classic American novel Invisible Man (1952), the nameless protagonist laments that he is “invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”1 In the novel’s last line he strongly suggests that his dilemma as an invisible African American applies not just to...
2 Nina Mae McKinney: Early Success and Tumultuous Career
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One can say with justification that Sul-Te-Wan was the first significant African American actress, even though her earliest roles were minor ones and in silent films. Justifiably, one can also say that Nina Mae McKinney was the first African American actress to have a leading role in a mainstream film, even though the film, a “talkie,” Hallelujah (1929), had an all-black cast. McKinney’s physical features and the role she played in...
3 Louise Beavers: Negotiating Racial Difference
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Sul-Te-Wan and Nina Mae McKinney were among numerous African American actresses and entertainers during the first half of the twentieth century whose physical (Eurocentric) features garnered them privilege in the entertainment industry over other African American actresses and entertainers with equal or superior talent, but whose physical features were considered more Afrocentric than Eurocentric. On stage and on screen, mulatto women often were objects, and sometimes victims, of...
4 Fredi Washington: The Masquerades and the Masks
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Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington are best remembered for their roles in Imitation of Life (1934), a film that spawned both actresses’ film careers. While Beavers capitalized on the notoriety that her role provided by popularizing such roles in other films, Washington was much more resistant to such one-dimensional roles. According to Anna Everett, Washington was “the cinema’s first reluctant black anti-hero. Her private yearning was the public demand for an acknowledgment of...
5 Hattie McDaniel: Centering the Margin
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Many people, but especially African Americans, agreed with Fredi Washington that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (novel, 1852; film, 1927) was an extremely vicious attack on African American personhood, much like the film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the novel-adapted-to-film Gone with the Wind (novel, 1936; film, 1939), a bestselling novel in the mid-1930s and a block- buster film in the late 1930s. The black press and the black community reacted to Gone with the Wind and its black supporting actresses much as...
6 Lena Horne: Actress and Activist
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When at a gathering of blacks and whites in 1944 Hattie McDaniel used the “N-word” to refer to Lena Horne as “a representative of the new type of [African American] womanhood” in Hollywood, she shocked the audience, but she made a valid point.1 This new representative type of black actress was “new” primarily in the sense that she (a certain physiological type, a mulatto) was being privileged over the physiological type to which...
7 Hazel Scott: Resistance to Othering
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There are those who would object to the term “actress” being applied to Hazel Scott. Though she appeared in several films, she usually played herself, an entertainer and exceptionally accomplished pianist who had few speaking lines in the films in which she appeared. Even in Rhapsody in Blue (1945) she appeared as herself, though she had a larger speaking...
8 Ethel Waters: Personification of Otherness
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Lena Horne recounts an incident that happened during the filming of Cabin in the Sky when Ethel Waters blew “like a hurricane,” lashing out at Horne and at “the whole system that had held her back and exploited her.” It seems true that Horne was “the immediate cause” of Waters’s outburst, for what Horne represented certainly could have been at the heart of Waters’s frustration...
9 Dorothy Dandridge: Intertwining the Reel and the Real
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Dorothy Dandridge belonged to that group of “new negro womanhood” actresses in which Hattie Mcdaniel placed Lena Horne. Indeed, Dan Dridge and Horne shared several characteristics as aspiring actresses in Hollywood of the 1940s and early 1950s—young, sexy, beautiful, light- complexioned, nightclub singers turned actresses, exploited by the industry for their beauty and sexual appeal, and subjected to essentially the same kinds of racial discrimination in the society at large that other...
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The virtual exclusion of black women from most mainstream film histories, especially ones that cover the pre-1960s period, has been acknowledged by a number of scholars. For example, Ruth Elizabeth Burks (1996), in her discussion of contemporary filmic representations, points to the glaring absence of the black woman. While she focuses on a specific film, her observations are germane to black women in the white Hollywood film industry since its beginning, and particularly to the pre- 1960s era. Burks contends that “The current critical practice of bypassing...
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Page Count: 440
Illustrations: 14 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2010