In a few weeks the Museum of Modern Art will unveil a new installation titled “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History.” The show’s centerpiece is seven reels of recently recovered footage shot in 1913 for a Bert Williams film project that was abandoned before completion. As detailed by the New York Times, the reels represent the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast, and also give insight into the production process itself. Below, Cara Caddoo, author of Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, explains why the materiality of such films makes further discoveries less and less likely, just as we’re gaining a wider understanding of the workings and importance of early black cinema.
Late last month, MoMA announced its curators had discovered footage from the oldest black cast film in existence. The previously unreleased 1913 film stars Bert Williams, one of the most popular stage performers of the day, and was co-directed by an African American. It’s a remarkable discovery, because only a handful of black-cast and black-directed films from the silent era exist today.
Unfortunately, this 1913 gem is probably one of the last films of its generation to have survived the century. Until the 1950s, most movies were shot on nitrate film, a fragile, highly combustible material that quickly corrodes without proper preservation. Less than 15% of the films made before 1930, including big Hollywood productions, still exist. Since time is the enemy of nitrate film, the prospect of recuperating lost films becomes more unlikely each year. As a consequence, most early black films will never be recovered.
The 1913 Bert Williams film has ignited interest in the diverse roles African Americans played in the making of modern cinema. But just as we are beginning to grasp the magnitude of these contributions, are the sources for accessing them slipping away? Is the history of black film lost to us?
Fortunately, African Americans left other records that can help us recover this history. Black newspapers, census reports, and church records offer ample proof of an important but forgotten past in which men and women were pioneers of the motion pictures. Before Hollywood, even before the nickelodeon theater, African Americans produced, exhibited, and watched films together.
They did so at a time when segregation divided the nation. Beginning in the 1890s, African Americans began to transform their churches, schools, and fraternal lodges into motion picture theaters during off-hours. They also produced films that celebrated the achievements of black leaders. Vibrant black film cultures blossomed across the country, from St. Louis, Missouri, to Jacksonville, Florida, and Washington, D.C. This wasn’t just by chance. At the turn of the century, these cities were attracting hundreds of thousands black migrants from the countryside who were eager to make the most of their lives as free people, and to claim, as WEB Du Bois once wrote, their “God-given right to play.”
Meanwhile, white theaters, even in the North, abided by the rules of Jim Crow segregation. They reserved only the worst seats of the house, known as the “buzzard’s roost” or “nigger heaven,” for black audiences. In these theaters, films that depicted black characters as violent, ignorant, and less-than-human were especially popular.
Such films, and their racist, degrading images of black characters, have been most likely to survive over subsequent decades. It’s partially a matter of scale; black filmmakers had limited resources and produced fewer films. But for most of the past century, film archivists and collectors focused on preserving the “classics,” films such as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, which retold the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction by recasting the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors of the South.
For this reason, MoMA’s discovery is all the more exhilarating—an artifact that has survived more than a century against all odds. Yet although the survival of this 1913 film is exceptional, our emerging understanding of early-twentieth century black film culture proves that the contributions of its black cast and director were not unusual. Even in the absence of reels of film and motion picture stills, we must celebrate these achievements. And the thrill of new discoveries should not let us forget the tragic forces that ensured the rarity of recovering such films. In short, both what we have lost and what we find are part of the longer history of American cinema.