Recently Unearthed Film Is the Earliest Surviving Footage of African-Americans in an All Black Cast.
The earliest footage of black people on film is a romantic comedy starring black Vaudeville performer Bert Williams.
According the New York Times,
The 35-millimeter footage was the raw material for a romantic comedy that would have run an estimated 35 to 40 minutes with titles. In it, Williams vies with two other suitors for an elegant lady, played by Odessa Warren Grey. Featuring domestic scenes, gatherings at a social club and a carefree day at a fair, the film has some racial stereotypes but also gives a glimpse of everyday activities. Here, the characters dress in high fashion for a ball and they take their children to the fair, where the grown-ups blithely ride the carousel. Williams and Grey have several tender exchanges.
Bert Williams was born in the Bahamas in 1874; his date of emigration to the United States is still unconfirmed by historians, but a 1920 census document references his country of birth. His Caribbean accent can be distinctly heard in films where he wasn’t adopting another accent as part of his performance. Bert Williams was one of the most known Vaudeville performers of his day, he was also one of the best-selling black artists before 1920. Williams is also credited with breaking the racial barrier in stage performance, a distinction often marked with controversy, as Williams was best known for his minstrel routines and was even a member of a famous minstrel performance troupe.
In the unreleased 1913 film, now titled “Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project” Bert Williams appears in his minstrel make-up throughout the film despite being part of an all black cast. Curators and researchers are still unsure of why that might have been. Unlike many other films of that day, this film was not created with the intention of mocking or debasing African-Americans. While it does feature some stereotypical jokes, the actors in the film depict middle and upper class black people, wearing fine clothing from that era.
According to the New York Times,
“There are so many things about it that are amazing,” said Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar at the University of Chicago. “It’s the first time I’ve seen footage from an unreleased film that really gives us insights into the production process.”
She added: “It’s an interracial production, but not in the way scholars have talked about early film history, in which black filmmakers had to rely on the expertise and money of white filmmakers. Here, we see a negotiation between performers and filmmakers.” Of the three directors of the film, one was black and two were white.
For more information on this film, go here. For information on upcoming screenings, go here.