Updated: Feb 17
Being an actor is a tough way to make a living. Actors’ Equity and the Screen Actors Guild estimate that only 10-15% of their members make a living at being an actor. Yes, things were a little easier back in the “Studio Days” when even bit players were under contract and had regular salaries like a normal job, but the possibility for advancement was still a longshot. In the freelance acting world today, if an actor can make a living solely at acting, then that actor has officially “made it.” Becoming a star is an entirely different struggle. Just take a good look at the credits of any movie. Try and count the names of all the actors you have never heard of, then realize you may never hear of them again. Still, they are considered the lucky ones because they actually got paid for being an actor, at least for a little while.
“If you can do anything else in the world for a living and be happy, for God’s sake do it.”
-Anna Strasberg, acting teacher
The point here is actors have to act, so actors have to find acting work that pays. Madame Sul-Te-Wan knew that all too well and used her Kentucky heritage to land her first real acting job. She learned Kentucky native, D. W. Griffith was planning to direct a new film in 1915. Sul-Te-Wan parlayed the Kentucky connecting into a meeting with Griffith and a role in his Ku Klux Klan-glorifying Birth of a Nation (1915).
Madame Sul-Te-Wan was the only African-American in the cast of Birth of a Nation. The other black roles were played by white actors in black face. Birth of a Nation made Sul-Te-Wan the first African-American with a studio contract, but it also made her despised in the African-American community. The NAACP protested the film for its racist overtones and Madame Sul-Te-Wan was forced to defend herself the only way she could…with the truth. She took the job because she was a single mother and had to provide for her children.
Racial stereotyping was an extra obstacle faced by actors of color from the very beginning of the American film industry. Still, Madame Sul-Te-Wan had broken ground and opened doors in Hollywood for the black actors who followed her. Her personal strength, presence of confidence, and enormous talent brought a depth and dignity to the “Mammy” roles she was given. It established her as unique and popular character actress. It also showed she was a force to be reckoned with.
"We never did discover the origin of her name. No one was bold enough to ask."
Lillian Gish, actress
Madame Sul-Te-Wan's birth name was Nellie Crawford. Her parents were freed Kentucky slaves in 1873, the year baby Nellie arrived. Her father was a preacher and she said, “He had the Bible in one hand and all the women he could get in the other.” After her father left the family, her mother began doing laundry for a Louisville theater company. Young Nellie would watch the performers from the wings and at age 6, she made her stage debut in a dance contest which she won.
At the age of 37, Nellie and her three children were abandoned by her husband in California. She was 10 months behind on her rent, so she took the bold step to reinvent herself as Madame Sul-Te-Wan and began her professional acting career. She worked steadily during the silent film era and was one of the few silent stars to survive the transition to sound. During the 1930s and 40s, she worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood…Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Melvyn Douglas, Veronica Lake, and King Kong to name a few. She received rave review for her role as Titube, a slave servant accused of witchcraft along with many other women in Maids of Salem, a fictional account of the Salem Witch Trials.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan was given the opportunity to break from the stereotype roles that dominated most of her career when in 1957 she played the grandmother of Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen Jones. The hit film had almost an entire African-American cast and made Dandridge the first African-American actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. It seems only fitting that Madame Sul-Te-Wan would be a part of that history.
Her career began during the birth of the American film industry and lasted more than 40 years. She continued to work almost until the time of her death in 1959 at the age of 85. The importance of her legacy was officially recognized in 1986, when Madame Sul-Te-Wan was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
The career of actor and pioneering African-American filmmaker, Spencer Williams did not end with honors. His role as Andy in the television series The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951-1953) brought him national fame, but tarnished his legacy forever. Before the first show even aired, the NAACP unsuccessfully petitioned a federal judge for an injunction to stop its premiere because of the show’s negative stereotype portrayals of African-Americans. Re-runs of the show ran in syndication until 1966 when civil rights groups finally succeeded in having the program pulled off the air. The longstanding controversies created by Amos and Andy virtually brought an end to Spencer Williams’ acting career and he died in 1969. He didn’t even receive money from the show’s 12 years in syndication. Worst of all, Amos and Andy totally eclipsed Spencer Williams’ ground-breaking contributions to American cinema.
Spencer Williams’ acting career dates back to 1928 and a bit part in the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill. He had more bit parts in more classics such as The Public Enemy (1931), but acting wasn’t paying his bills. To help fill-in his monetary gaps, Williams became an immigration officer and began working behind the camera for Poverty Row studios. He wrote dialogue for two-reel comedies and was even responsible for developing the first all-black cast talkies, including The Melancholy Dame (1929), which also feature Spencer Williams in the cast.
Spencer Williams had all the knowledge and experience it took to be an all-around filmmaker and he put it to use making movies with an all-black cast for black audiences that focused on honest representations of African-Americans and black culture. He wrote the screenplays for the Western movie, Harlem Rides the Range (1939) and the Horror/Comedy film, Son of Ingagi (1939).
Williams’ screenplay for Son of Ingagi impressed the owner of a studio which produced what was then called race films. They were movies designed for black audiences. The studio gave Williams the opportunity to produce and direct those films. At the time, legendary filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was the only African-American producer and director working in American cinema, but Spencer Williams created his masterpiece on his first try as a director, much like Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane released that same year. The Blood of Jesus (1941) was the most popular race film of its time. It’s the story about the Devil trying to seduce and steal the soul of a devoutly Christian woman who is dying. In 1991, The Blood of Jesus became the first race film placed in the National Film Registry. Time magazine even called it one of the “25 Most Important Films on Race."
“The Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death are among the most spiritually adventurous movies ever made. They conveyed the moral crisis of the urban/country, blues/spiritual musical dichotomies through their documentary style and fable-like narratives.”
-Armond White, film critic for National Review and Out magazines
Spencer Williams directed 12 films between 1941 and 1949, which included two short features and a documentary. Most theaters in the South refused to show race films, so Williams, armed with his own projector, traveled the South and screened his films to black audiences in any venue available. Sometimes that was just a white sheet draped on the side of a barn, but Williams brought the movies to those who craved them.
Like most great artist throughout the history of the world, the works of Madame Sul-Te-Wan and Spencer Williams were not fully appreciated until long after their deaths. It’s only by standing in our own contemporary time and taking an honest look back at ourselves as a nation that we can grasp the huge significance of what these two film pioneers did in their time.