Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.
If anyone involved with film in its earliest days realized how important their work would become, they probably would’ve taken greater care to preserve the medium for future generations. But, at the time, few seemed to believe cinema would last beyond its initial novelty. So, when a silent film surfaces, it’s cause for celebration. Such is the case with the recent discovery of an untitled, unreleased film from 1913.
Comprised into 7 reels, the movie is unique for two reasons:
- it’s an early concerted attempt at a feature-length project;
- it stars a mostly-Black cast.
At the start of the 20th century, film was still expensive, and movie studios – really just a gathering of adventurous artists – put out “shorts” that would often last only a few minutes. In this particular film, refurbished by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, we see a rare depiction of a Black middle class. It features Bert Williams, the first Black star on Broadway, and already a veteran of music and stage. Williams competes with other men for the affections of a young woman played by Odessa Warren Grey. The film had three directors; one of whom was Black. With titles, it would have run for about 35 minutes. The movie was made in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary period beginning in the 1890s when a variety of Black artists – writers, singers, dancers – expounded upon their creative intellects and showed the world that they and all Blacks were human, too.
The film is part of a collection of 900 unprinted negatives produced by the now-defunct Biograph Company of New York. In 1939, Iris Barry, MOMA’s founding film curator, acquired the cache in 1939. In 1976, a MOMA film curator began copying the film and realized its historical significance when he spotted Williams amidst the characters. But, not until 2004, did the museum begin both restoring the film and searching for its origins. The research team showed the material to film historians; looked through a number of old movie trade papers; and even hired a lip reader to extract potential clues from the movie scenes themselves.
Their efforts have paid off. Now, we know the names of just about everyone appearing in the film, as well as its producers. It’s been fully restored and is scheduled for a premier showing this October 24.
A strange fact is glaringly obvious: Williams, of all people, appears in black-face; the antiquitous cosmetic concoction often used by White performers on stage and in film at the time to portray Black characters. Why Williams did that is unknown. It may have been a mockery of the technique itself, or perhaps an attempt to make him more appealing to White audiences. Regardless, this is an important historical find and it should be treasured for the cinematic gem that it is.