A 101-year-old film discovered by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is the oldest known feature film starring a cast of black actors. The footage, discovered among 900 negatives acquired from Bronx-based Biograph Studio in 1939 by the museum’s first curator of film, is set to be screened next month. The pioneering film will be presented alongside archival documents and other findings as part of MoMA’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History. According to the Guardian, black actors appeared in film as early as 1909, but such footage is believed lost.
The untitled 1913 film, provisionally named Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project, features the Caribbean-American vaudevillian Bert Williams. In a news release, MoMA notes that the seven reels of “rushes” — unedited daily takes — were filmed at “virtually the same time” as the Ku Klux Klan–promoting film The Birth of a Nation, which ignited controversy and spurred the hate group’s recruiting efforts.
But in the Biograph Studio reels, ancillary documentary material depicting the movie’s filming presents “candid footage of the black cast and white crew interacting on set, and several frames of Williams mingling with white extras on a suburban street location during a break in filming,” per MoMA. Along with offering footage of sets in New York and New Jersey, the reels represent a substantive contribution to the video documentation of this period in American history and show business.