Interface of Blackface and Black Love

Despite the Stereotypes Romance Prevails

Diana McClure

100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Production still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert WilliamsOn November 8, 2014 the Museum of Modern Art screened Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day, 101-year-old film footage from the earliest known feature film made with black actors.

Scene still Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. (Left to right) Bert Williams, Odessa Warren Grey, unidentified, Walker ThompsonThe screening, a world premiere, is accompanied by the exhibition 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History (through March 2015) and is part of MoMA's annual, 'To Save and Project" film preservation festival. 

The seven reels of untitled and unassembled footage star legendary Caribbean American musical theater performer and recording artist Bert Williams (1874-1922). Found among an unexamined trove of 900 negatives acquired in 1939 by MoMA from the legendary Biograph Studio, the footage was shot at the same time as D.W. Griffith's notoriously controversial Birth of a Nation.  However, the project was never completed unlike the latter. Although far from perfect, the film footage offers a parallel narrative, if not entirely a counter narrative, to the derogatory imaging of black people and culture in Birth of a Nation.

In order to uncover a storyline, actors and directors, with no intertitles, script or production credits available, MoMA's curatorial team, led by Ron Magliozzi, utilized their detective skills throughout a decade of research. From collections like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where the team scrutinized theater history from the archives of the black newspaper, The New York Age, to excursions between Manhattan and Statan Island where they located an abandoned Jewish cemetary used in a scene, the project took the curators through a who's who of the black performance culture of early 1900s New York City.  Of an era that preceded both jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, the film project was in some ways a response to the increased blacklisting of all-black casts on stages in New York City, as well as the idea that a right to perform and engage the mastery of one's craft was viewed as an ongoing challenge to segregation.

Scene still Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. Abbie Mitchell

Scene still Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams Controversial at the time, and still an issue in contemporary culture albeit metaphorically, Bert William’s performs in blackface as the central character in what appears to be a middle-class comedy grounded in the shenanigans, relationships and revelry of a black social club. The story also seems to be based on a set of stories, popular at the time, called the Darktown Follies, and takes place in the setting of the Lime Kiln Club, a venue in a popular syndicated comic of the era. As in today’s Hollywood and despite the films unusually diverse black cast, limitations of character type and industry standards based on stereotypes are interlaced throughout the narrative. A watermelon eating competition and fried chicken are featured as the cuisine of choice, gin drinking, a cakewalk dance performance and a sprinting competition between Bert Williams and a midget frame a romantic courtship between Williams and his leading lady, Odessa Warren Grey.

Scene still Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project. Odessa Warren Grey It is the romantic narrative within the story that proves to be the most progressive part of the footage, functioning on some levels in sharp contrast to images of black love in 21st century popular culture.  MoMA’s press information states, “Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century.”

In the early 1900s black romantic love was only acceptable when it was presented in a comedic fashion. However, in this film, albeit within the context of a vaudevillian-influenced silent film, black romantic love is far from a joke.  Mesmerizing footage of Williams with Grey — a real life socialite, fashion entrepreneur and feminist supporter — spinning round and round on an open air merry-go-round invokes a genuine aura of proper courtship, joy, pleasure, equality and sharing between their characters. And, in fact, this is probably one of the reasons the film was never released.

Production still on location from Lime Kiln Field Day Project. Bert Williams (back to camera) and director Edwin MiddletonOf note in the footage is the inclusion of behind-the-scenes interaction between the black cast and the white film crew, as well as casual mingling between Williams and white producers. MoMA Curator Ron Magliozzi has noted the contemporary irony of white curators attempting to tell the story of the lost footage, and has expressed interest in having the film go viral by having black artists complete it – sample it, remix it, edit it or write new musical scores for the work. 

The film was produced by Biograph Co. for Klaw and Erlanger at a studio in the Bronx, New York and on location. The film was directed by Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter and Sam Corker Jr.  More information and video clips are here.  

All still photos in this article, courtesy MoMA.
Diana McClure is a writer, photographer and cultural producer based in Brooklyn NY