Sunday, September 21, 2014

New York Times: Coming Soon, a Century Late: A Black Film Gem

New York Times: Footage from what may be the earliest surviving feature film with a black cast, made in 1913. Credit Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project, via Museum of Modern Art

New York Times: 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
The New York Times

Felicia R. Lee

Sept. 21, 2014

For decades, the seven reels from 1913 lay unexamined in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. 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.

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