Oldest surviving film with an all-black cast moved me to laughter and tears | Steven W Thrasher
Sometimes I sit down to watch a black and white film and immediately feel depressed as I think to myself: “Everyone I am about to see is dead.” But I felt an unmitigated sense of joy – before, during and after – watching the recently restored dailies of a 101-year-old feature film with an all-black cast.
Produced by Biograph Studio in 1913 and starring Caribbean American star Bert Williams, the never-finished, never-released film (awkwardly titled Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day) is showing in the Museum of Modern Art’s 12th annual To Save and Project festival. It is a gem of a movie which moved me to tears a couple of times, but which also slapped an irrepressible smile on my face during most of its flickering frames. The film is also significant because it is the oldest film of any kind with its “daily rushes” (multiple unedited takes) intact, allowing us to see what was happening behind the scenes, including two white co-directors and a black stage manager directing an all-black cast.
The process of bringing the film to the public has been an effort “a decade in the making”, MoMA film curator Ron Magliozzi explained in his opening remarks, after it languished for nine decades nearly unwatched. In 1939, it was among 900 negatives acquired from Biograph as part of the MoMA’s founding film collection, when curator Iris Barry was hunting, ironically, for work by racist filmmaker DW Griffith.
In a Q&A before the screening, Williams’s comedic screen presence was repeatedly (and rightly) compared to that of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton by Magliozzi and critic Margo Jefferson. The plot of the loosely assembled footage, which was never edited until now, is about as loose as that of any Chaplin vehicle, and basically involves Williams, a schemer, trying to woo a young woman over his rivals as he squires her about town.
The film is not without its problems. Williams appears as a black actor in blackface, and it’s a strange era for him to be doing so, as blackface by black actors was waning. Also, on the one hand, the film was produced at an ascendant moment for black culture, a generation before the Harlem Renaissance and jazz would alter black art in America. On the other, this film was made right before black culture would have a major reactionary setback by film, in the form of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Made at the same time, Birth would instigate race riots across America and be a rallying cry for the Ku Klux Klan until the 1970s. (Indeed, Magliozzi believes Williams’ film wasn’t initially released because it “It wasn’t racist enough” and Birth’s role as the nation’s first blockbuster sealed its fate.)
There are racist tropes in Williams’ film, although you can largely sense the actors working to use them in a manner of disidentification. Particularly cringeworthy are the scenes of black people chasing after a pig, fighting each other for shoes like they’re the latest Nikes, and engaged in a watermelon eating contest. But these activities were common events at the kind of field day fair they’re attending, and it’s sweet to see black people going to a fair period, strolling in an Easter parade and riding a merry-go-round.
The “cakewalk” dance at the Lime Kiln Club scene is the highlight, in which much of the cast parades, their joy palpable, down a dance line, a precursor by many decades of Don Cornelius and his Soul Train, or the voguing catwalks of ballroom drag and Paris is Burning. The cut of the film prepared by Magliozzi is very loose, and as a white preservationist, he says his hope is that it will “go viral” and be re-edited by black filmmakers, artists and musicians. Especially musically, it is fun to think of how an all black cast from 1913 could interact with jazz, hip-hop and visual black artists of today to create a meme.
The movie is also a love story, featuring one of the most delightful courtships you are ever going to see between a black man and woman on American celluloid. Even in 2014, it’s rare to see even Denzel Washingtonor Viola Davis play a romantic leading role. Williams riding the merry go round with his girl, and puckering up his lips for a kiss at the end of the film, holds up as surprisingly rare moment of black intimacy a century after those lips touched.
That’s the reason I was moved by the film: we have never seen these people before. These black performers were wiped out of our American consciousness by Birth of a Nation and decades of subsequently limited black imagery. It is only a century later that we get to see them; and, their subsequent arrival, as if out of a time capsule, should be as heralded by us as Margaret Atwood’s work in the Future Library will be when it is read for the first time in 2114. These performers, who look so alive on screen, never got their due in life. And yet, we get to see that they lived. That they worked as actors. That they experienced joy in their cakewalks and on that merry-go-round. The perceptible love they had for their work, and the love they expressed as characters, is a beautiful thing to witness.
It is a joy simply to see proof that such black performers had once lived and walked this earth.
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