Flashback Friday: The Black Actress Who Launched her career in “The Birth of a Nation”.
(Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Image Source: BlackPast.org)
And no, I absolutely do NOT mean last year’s controversial Nate Parker flick, “The Birth of a Nation”. I’m talking the D.W. Griffith, 1915 film that celebrates the supposed end of the “treachery” that was Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. From Wikipedia:
The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915.
Three hours long, the film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission; it was the first 12-reel film in the United States. The film chronicles the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era over the course of several years: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.
The film was a commercial success, though it was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. There were widespread African-American protests against The Birth of a Nation, such as in Boston, while thousands of white Bostonians flocked to see the film. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. Griffith’s indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.
The film’s release is also credited as being one of the events that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. The Birth of a Nation, along with the trial and lynching of Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta, was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. Under President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House.
Glorification of the KKK, Black men portrayed as rapists… and a bunch of White actors in blackface portraying said Black men. Eww. So who was this Black woman who gladly signed up to be part of a movie that made the KKK all the rage 100 years ago? Meet Madame Sul-Te-Wan, a very interesting person who was part of Hollywood’s earliest era. Born Nellie Crawford in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1873, her parents were freed slaves. From “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood” by Donald Bogle:
Her mother, Cleo de Londa, had been a singer; her father, a traveling preacher named Silas Crawford Wan, whom she once said was Hindu. Whether that was true or not was anybody’s guess. Later, the story went over well in Hollywood, which loved those people who created their own colorful biographies. “My father didn’t mount to nothing,” she once said. “He had the Bible in one hand and all the women he could get in the other.”
Nellie’s mother was left to fend for herself, working as a laundress for actresses in Louisville. Young Nellie often delivered the laundry. Silently, she studied the entertainers: their dance steps, vocal mannerisms, and routines.
Nellie moved to Cincinnati, joined a company called Three Black Cloaks, and billed herself as Creole Nell. She also formed her own theatrical companies and toured the East Coast. She was developing into a striking-looking young woman, not pretty by the standards of her time but charismatic and assured: she knew that she was somebody. Perhaps she had also mastered by then what was to be one of her trademarks in films: that steely eyed, tough, evil stare that let people know that she was sizing them up—and that they couldn’t trifle with her.
Her life changed when she married Robert Reed Conley. Around 1910, with her husband and her two young sons, she moved to Arcadia, California, near Pasadena.
For Nellie Conley, a new life meant a new identity. She henceforth called herself Madame Sul-Te-Wan—and insisted that everyone else do the same. “We never did discover the origin of her name,” actress Lillian Gish once said. No one was bold enough to ask. Madame may have had any number of reasons for her new name. In the South, many colored citizens were addressed by their first names by whites. Or as Aunt or Uncle. Rarely were they referred to as Miss or Mr. or Mrs. But now if anyone called her by her first name, then they would be addressing her as Madame….
But the new life that looked so promising for Madame Sul-Te-Wan quickly turned sour. Her husband walked out on her and their three sons. Her youngest was only three weeks old. She was also ten months behind on her rent. Hers became a hand-to-mouth existence, day by day worrying where her next meal was coming from.
Then she heard talk of a film being shot by a director from her hometown in Kentucky. She had heard of the director D. W. Griffith from a man named Dad Ready, whom she met while working in a circus. Ready had told her of Griffith’s plans to film The Clansman and wrote her a letter of introduction. “Madame, if you ever go to California and hear anything at all about D. W. Griffith,” Ready told her, “get in touch with him because if D. W. Griffith ever sees you, you’re made.” She still had Ready’s letter, and she decided to see if it could get her some work. Kindle Locations 210-249)
Suddenly a single mom with three little mouths to feed, Madame pulled herself together and boldly set out to find Griffith, letter of introduction in hand, with hopes that he’d give her some job. She recalled their initial meeting:
“He held my hands and shook with emotion,” Madame recalled, “and tears come to Griffith’s eyes and I cried.” Telling her not to cry, he said, “You’ll be all right.” Then he told her, “I’m going to let you do all the dirty work on The Clansman for me.” (284-286)
Um… okay. More:
“There were practically no Negro actors in California then and, as far as we knew, only a few in the East,” recalled Griffith’s leading lady Lillian Gish. “Even in minstrel shows, the parts were usually played by whites in blackface.”
“To economize, Mr. Griffith used many of the actors in more than one role,” said Gish. “Bobby Harron, for instance, might play my brother in the morning, and in the afternoon put on blackface and play a Negro.” All the major black characters were played by white performers. “But one young Negro woman did play in the film—Madame Sul-Te-Wan,” recalled Gish. “She was first employed to help us keep our dressing rooms clean at the studio.” Then Griffith—in need of actors for his minor black characters—decided to put Madame on-screen. “Madame Sul-Te-Wan played many small parts,” said Gish, “with the help of various costumes.” (294-304)
Fascinatingly, even after The Birth wrapped, Griffith kept Madame on payroll, and at some point when she was really struggling financially, he sent her money to help out. He also cast her in 1916’s Intolerance.
For the rest of Griffith’s life, they remained friends. Theirs was an odd alliance: the colored woman struggling to keep her family afloat and to make a career for herself, and the director considered by many to be racist. Yet with all the outrage and controversy, Madame Sul-Te-Wan remained his steadfast defender. “She was devoted to Mr. Griffith,” said Lillian Gish, “and he in turn loved her.”
“Why you know I love that man, oh my God yes,” Sul-Te-Wan said. “If my father was living and was going to be drowned and Mr. Griffith was going to be drowned, and they say now Madame there’s two men out there in the water and it’s possible you could save one of them, but you can’t save but one, I’d step on my dad’s back to get solid foundation to drag D. W. Griffith out.” (357-363)
Well, damn. Madame went on to have an acting career that spanned decades, even appearing in the classic 1954 film Carmen Jones as Dorothy Dandridge’s grandmother.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan was far more than the stereotyped mammies and maids she mainly played. She was the first Black actor- man or woman- to sign a film contract in Hollywood. She paved the way for Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Dorothy, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.
She was first.
Image and Caption from “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood”
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