Who Was the First Black Actress to Star in a Movie?

The entertainment industry has come a long way in terms of diversity and inclusivity, but it wasn’t always the case. In the early days of cinema, opportunities for black actors and actresses were extremely limited.

Despite these obstacles, one woman paved the way and left an indelible mark on the industry. Let’s take a closer look at who was the first black actress to star in a movie.

Who Was She?

The first black actress to star in a movie was none other than Madame Sul-Te-Wan. Born Nellie Crawford in 1873, Madame Sul-Te-Wan began her acting career on stage before transitioning to silent films in 1915. She appeared in over 100 films during her career, mostly playing stereotypical roles such as maids and other domestic workers.

Breaking Barriers

Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s breakthrough role came in D.W. Griffith’s controversial film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). While the film is now widely regarded as racist and offensive, at the time it was groundbreaking for its use of innovative filmmaking techniques. Madame Sul-Te-Wan played multiple roles in the film, including a freed slave who joins the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite the problematic nature of her role, Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s performance was widely praised by audiences and critics alike. She continued to work steadily throughout the silent era, often playing small but memorable parts.


Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s contributions to cinema go far beyond just being the first black actress to star in a movie. She was also an influential figure behind the scenes, serving as a mentor to many up-and-coming actors and actresses.

Sadly, Madame Sul-Te-Wan passed away in 1959 at the age of 86. However, her legacy lives on and continues to inspire generations of black actors and actresses.


In conclusion, Madame Sul-Te-Wan was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. As the first black actress to star in a movie, she paved the way for future generations of black performers to achieve success on their own terms. Her legacy serves as a reminder that diversity and inclusivity are essential for a thriving entertainment industry.