African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 by Charlene Regester
Regester (African & Afro-American studies, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill) documents the lives and careers of nine African American actresses working before the Civil Rights era whose “contributions to mainstream cinema have been either minimized or erased in the histories of Hollywood cinema.”
Madame Sul-Te-Wan had a near-half-century-career that began with the infamously racist The Birth of a Nation (1915). Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington, both described as “white mulattos,” found success in part because their lighter coloring made them desirable commodities for white audiences. Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel (the first African American to win an Oscar) couldn’t escape demeaning subservient roles. Lena Horne and Hazel Scott eventually chose activism over Hollywood’s exploitations. Dorothy Dandridge became the tragic real-life version of her oversexualized reel masks.
Verdict: As Regester proves how Hollywood made African American actresses virtually invisible, she ironically renders her own book unnoticeable to mainstream readers with a combination of academic posturing, tedious repetition, and careless inconsistencies. Numerous biographies and memoirs bear these actresses’ names; readers might better discover these remarkable women there.