Gold Rushes

Production still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, 1913. Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams.

“I THINK THEY DIDN’T release it because it wasn’t racist enough,” said Ron Magliozzi, associate curator in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, before a press preview of assembled footage of a movie shot in 1913 but ultimately abandoned—the earliest surviving feature-length production with a black cast. The stunning rushes for this work—a lively project devoid of many (though not all) bigoted grotesqueries—are being presented as part of MoMA’s twelfth annual film-preservation program “To Save and Project”; this particular rescue mission has an exceptionally long history. These seven reels were part of a trove of materials acquired by Iris Barry, MoMA’s founding film curator, from the Biograph Studio’s Bronx facilities shortly before their destruction in 1939.

Though never titled at the time, MoMA is calling the unfinished film Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day, in reference to its lead, the Bahamian-born actor who was the best-known black entertainer of the era (and who appeared in only a few movies, making his central role here all the more remarkable). During the roughly one hour of unedited material (for which no inter-titles were found), Williams is established as a banjo-playing boulevardier and con man vying for the attentions of the neighborhood beauty (played by Odessa Warren Gray, once a prominent milliner, according to Magliozzi). The couple attends the annual picnic and ball sponsored by the titular fraternal organization for the town’s black residents; Williams and his date eat ice cream, share a lollipop on a carousel, and, later that night at the Lime Kiln Club, take part in a fancy-dress cakewalk. (Cultural critic Margo Jefferson, during a brief panel discussion before the screening, wittily compared this dance number to “a Don Cornelius Soul Train moment” and more broadly noted the scene’s “proud élan.”) As the suitor walks his lady home, the film concludes with the two of them kissing—a bit of romance between a black man and a black woman played not for laughs, as was almost always the case at the time, but as an honest expression of love. (The moment is anomalous not just for 1913; throughout the next several decades, black actors would rarely be permitted to display any affection on screen.)

Despite this and other singular traits of the film—notably the cast’s ease and camaraderie with the two white directors, Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, and other white crew members, glimpsed during the rushes and in the production stills that line MoMA’s theater-lobby galleries—the project is not without egregious stereotypes. Williams performs in blackface; the sign for the book-lined room of the Lime Kiln Club announces it as “De Libray.” In the prescreening panel, Magliozzi—who, with another MoMA colleague, led the team that spent the past decade identifying as much as possible about the production—emphasized that he didn’t want to further exacerbate these painful incidents during the assembling of the footage: “We felt like we were trapping these performers in a minstrel narrative...Being white curators, we missed things.” (Keen to hear others’ observations, Magliozzi asked Jacqueline Stewart, a leading scholar of African American cinema, and social-practice artist Theaster Gates to also look at the footage.) Flickering on a screen a century-plus later, the actors are, at the very least, no longer confined to an even greater ignominy: being forgotten.

The world-premiere presentation of the assembled rushes for Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day will take place on November 8 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the film-preservation festival “To Save and Project,” which runs through November 22. “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” is on view in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Lobby Galleries at MoMA through March 2015.