The New York City-based Museum of Modern Art recently revealed a historic discovery that had gone unexamined in their film archives: the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a Black cast, their curators say.
According to the New York Times, the seven reels of footage include an untitled romantic comedy film from 1913, which offers a “rare visual depiction of middle-class Black characters from an era when lynchings and stereotyped Black images were commonplace.”
Broadway’s first Black superstar, Bert Williams, starred in the film, along with a roster of Harlem-based Black performers. The film’s storyline centers on Williams’s character as he and two other suitors compete for the love of an elegant woman, played by Odessa Warren Grey.
“There are so many things about it that are amazing,” Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar at the University of Chicago, told the Times.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen footage from an unreleased film that really gives us insights into the production process.”
She also addressed the fact that the film was helmed by one Black and two white directors: “It’s an interracial production, but not in the way scholars have talked about early film history, in which Black filmmakers had to rely on the expertise and money of white filmmakers. Here, we see a negotiation between performers and filmmakers.”
An exhibition about the footage, which includes behind-the-scenes interactions, will open at the MoMA on Oct. 24 and display excerpts and still frames.
“They worked so hard and the film wasn’t even released,” Ronald S. Magliozzi, the organizer of the exhibition and an associate curator in MoMA’s film department, told the Times. "After 101 years, it’s about time.”
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(Photo: Michael Kim/Corbis)