Rare Silent Film With Black Cast Makes A Century-Late Debut
A rare, untitled 1913 silent film is the subject of a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit, 100 Years In Post-Production: Resurrecting A Lost Landmark of Black Film History, tells the story behind the silent film's production.
The film features Bert Williams, one of the era's famed black entertainers and the first black Broadway star. He performed in blackface on the stage, and does the same in this film, a romantic comedy with a large black cast of actors.
The movie was never produced in its time; its seven reels of negatives were locked away by the Biograph film studio. The Museum of Modern Art claimed the reels in 1938 as part of its founding film collections. The negatives were inside a cache of 900 film canisters donated by Biograph when it closed and donated its vaults, and MOMA made the first print from the film in 1976.
To see a black man and black woman kissing — it's an intimacy that we rarely see in black film again during that time period.
The museum gave the orphan movie a working title — Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Field Day — for the exhibit and November screening, when it will be shown as part of the museum's annual festival of film preservation. The name is taken from one of the sources for the film's narrative, a stage routine based on a fictional black social club, the Lime Kiln Club.
The black characters are shown in scenes of play and leisure — rare for motion pictures of the time. It's a stunning contrast to the depictions of greedy and violent stereotypes shown two years later in Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's controversial cinematic masterpiece.
MOMA curator Ron Magliozzi says the theater conventions of the day required one performer in a black musical to don blackface, and the rest of the cast could perform without makeup, more naturally.
"It was a sop to the white audience," Magliozzi says. "The fact that the lead wore blackface allowed the rest of the cast not to wear blackface before white audiences."
This film follows the convention of the time, with Williams wearing blackface. His performance is comic, but not buffoonish; he is a romantic lead and gets the girl in the end of the picture.
"There's so much joy that we rarely ever see in films about black people," says Deborah Willis, the NYU chair of photography and imaging who recently screened the unedited footage.
"To see a black man and black woman kissing — it's an intimacy that we rarely see in black film again during that time period," Willis says. "This is an unknown story, the unseen story of African-American culture on screen."
Camille Forbes, author of the biography Introducing Bert Williams, has seen the museum's unedited version of the film and says it may reopen the book on Williams' art and vision, as well as his contemporaries.
"It's a very powerful statement on Williams' efforts to perform in character on his own terms and in an environment to make a character as powerful and rich as it could be; the most meaningful it can be," Forbes says.
Forbes says that understanding Williams' experience gives us a chance to understand other performers — actors who played roles that we modern audiences may have decided are unacceptable.
MOMA curator Ron Magliozzi hopes the film will now be liberated. Long after the public screening, he says, he hopes the film's future will include film festivals. Maybe it will come out as a DVD.
"We're a lending institution. After restoration comes resurrection. The next step is liberation," he says.
The exhibit runs through March 2015.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.