By Tod Roulette
Bert Williams and Company, a film event at the Museum Of Modern Art, features the Museum’s celebrated restoration of the black-cast 1913 feature Lime Kiln Club Field Day. The film returns after its 2014 world-premiere in a newly titled and tinted 35mm print. This must-see film event runs through Tuesday January 19th.
On Wednesday January 13th, prior to the screening of two silent films from 1913 with all black casts, John T. Reddick Harlem historian and Columbia University Community Scholar gave an engaging talk with several slides about the arts community and intersection of Jewish and African-American composers, actors and minstrels in the new burgeoning (and darkening) Harlem. Reddick gave context to the silent film we settled in to watch featuring Bert Williams, Henry Troy and the Darktown Follies. Williams influenced mainstream white actors such as Charlie Chaplin and admired by Spencer Tracey. Mr. Riddick will reprise his remarks at the Friday January 15 showing.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day includes African-American show biz pioneers Sam Lucas, Abbie Mitchell, and J. Leubrie Hill. The film (complete with live pianist playing period rag-time music) is part of the It is part of a seventh month celebration of lost black film history that began in October 2015. In the audience were actor Henry Troy’s granddaughter Diedre Troy and extended family. Troy plays The Angry Suitor in Lime Kiln Club Field, and this was the first time the Troy family experienced their patriarch’s historic performance on the big screen.
“I just think shame diminishes exploration because the discomfort puts off discussion. Also, for Blacks the mainstream culture takes to believing stereotypes of us and we spend a lot of our time beating them back, which for the energy it requires from us makes them virtually real”, says Reddick when asked about the significance of the film footage that includes a black minstrel.
The film footage of Harlem, which had recently had become a predominantly African-American neighborhood, was abandoned by the producers, Klaw and Erlanger in 1913. The unlabeled footage was put in storage and the silent all black cast love story never enjoyed a general release. In the same year, D.W. Griffith, a Southern racist, began filming his infamous, Birth of a Nation a crude anti integration movie. Griffith’s racist propaganda was the first movie ever screened at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, an openly prejudiced Southerner. Wilson lauded the filmmaker for its portrayal of the perils of race mixing.
At the same time Klaw and Erlanger were forced to stop making a series of movies with the all black actors. The Kiln Field Day film with Bert Williams a light-skinned African-American man in black face relieves volumes about the entertainment industry’s history, race in America, and the marginalization groups by the media. The 88th Academy Awards nomination announcements, which again excluded actors of color illustrates how the marginalization continues. Tickets for Bert Williams and Company, can be purchased online at moma.org.