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“100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History,” currently on view at Museum of Modern Art. provides a never before seen look at 101-year-old film footage of the earliest known surviving feature film with a cast of black actors. The footage was found among 900 negatives from the Biograph Studio, which MoMA’s founding Film Curator, Iris Barry, acquired in 1939. Since all of the films featuring black cast members from the early 20th-century are considered lost, this rare discovery of the 1913 rushes launched an intensive research project to identify members of production, crew, and actors. Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi and Preservation Officer Peter Williamson have organized an exhibition that showcases their extensive research findings, archival materials, and selections from the film.
The most remarkable result of the finding is without a doubt the reassembled full-length feature film Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). Without any accompanying titles, scripts, or production credits, MoMA’s curators pieced together seven reels of unassembled rushes to reconstruct the film’s narrative. Magliozzi employed professional lip-readers to decipher the dialogue and used facial recognition to identify the cast. Created in 1913, the film stars Bert Williams (1874-1922), the renowned Caribbean American musical theater performer and recording artist, who is trying to win the heart of his his female counterpart, Odessa Warren Grey, during a day filled with fairground festivities and dancing.
A live and partially improvisational piano performance of music typical of the time period accompanied the presentation of the film. Despite the 100-year span of time between the film’s creation and its release, we personally found the film relatively easy to connect with due to the timeless themes such as unrequited love and expertly executed comedic moments. One particular scene that resonated with us was the cakewalk, which is a form of line dance. During this two-minute clip in the movie, the performers paired together and each displayed dance moves characteristic of their personalities. The cakewalk proves to be more than just an amusing portion of the film though; the cakewalk transcended the black community during the early 20-century, and became an international sensation with the white upper class and theater audiences.
Behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with white extras and depictions of other individuals of a multiracial background highlight the complex racial relationships of the early 1900s. Although Bert Williams was highly regarded in the black community, his own persona was a mask that he wore for his performing career. Being from West Indian and Danish descent, Williams was light-skinned and often underwent blackface in his roles. Many of the actors in the film were members of an African American Theatrical Organization known as The Frogs. Magliozzi explained, “they were the leaders of a community of entertainers at a particular moment in the history of black culture who were engaged in a progressive effort to enhance black culture in front of white audiences through performances beyond Harlem. The effort to get to Broadway and the right to perform was a challenge to segregation.” In many ways, Williams alongside his fellow actors pushed the boundaries of racial segregation in a burgeoning entertainment industry.
While “100 Years in Post-Production” may be rooted in the past, Magliozzi’s wish is for this show to promote creative projects in the future. He says, “We want this film to go viral. In archival practice, we restore films to their original form of release, but this case is different because the film was never fully completed in the first place. We believe it should be completed by the contemporary community of black artists. We would like people to take samples from it, edit it how they want, do new scores and interpretations and essentially complete it for us.”
“100 Years in Post-Production” is not just about preserving a poignant moment in American film history, but encouraging further creative production in conjunction with these important cultural artifacts.
“100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through March 2015.