100 Year Old Footage: Rare Century Old Black Film Discovered

September 24, 2014  |  

We get to take a step back in time… a good 100 years and see ourselves. The New York Times reported the earliest film archive with a Black cast from 1913 has been found at the Museum of Modern Art.

This finding comes at a time when Blacks in American are up against a continued racial inequality in the justice system and beyond and while the film is not one to set an activist tone, just being able to see ourselves breaking barriers 100 years ago is a timely reminder to keep pushing.

The New York Times reported:

 Now, after years of research, a historic find has emerged: what MoMA curators say is the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast. It is a rare visual depiction of middle-class black characters from an era when lynchings and stereotyped black images were commonplace. What’s more, the material features Bert Williams, the first black superstar on Broadway. Williams appears in blackface in the untitled silent film along with a roster of actors from the sparsely documented community of black performers in Harlem on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance. Remarkably, the reels also capture behind-the-scenes interactions between these performers and the directors.

MoMA plans an exhibition around the work called “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History,” which is to open on Oct. 24 and showcase excerpts and still frames. Sixty minutes of restored footage will be shown on Nov. 8 in the museum’s annual To Save and Project festival dedicated to film preservation.

“There are so many things about it that are amazing,” said Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar at the University of Chicago.

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.

The movie contains other gems. An elaborately staged ball scene in which the cast performs the Cakewalk is the longest early record of black vernacular dance on film, the curators said. Behind-the-scenes footage shows Williams’s ever-present blackface being applied. Even the kiss between Williams and Grey could mark a first example of such affection for black characters on film, said Ronald S. Magliozzi, the organizer of the exhibition and an associate curator in MoMA’s film department.

“It’s absolutely fascinating and quite remarkable material,” said Paul Spehr, a historian of early cinema.



We’re looking forward to the film’s release and being able to see a part of Black culture and history we’ve never seen before!

Check out a short clip and more on the story at NYTimes.com.


Photo: Bert Williams courting Odessa Warren Grey in a scene from the unreleased 1913 film. Credit Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project, via Museum of Modern Art

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