In 1913, members of the Harlem-based theatrical production Darktown Follies joined Caribbean American stage star Bert Williams at a film studio in the Bronx to make a motion picture that depicted a more progressive image of Black social life than had previously been seen on screen. The film shows Williams’s character trying to win the hand of a local beauty and displays affection between the lead actors, at a time when such scenes were considered unacceptable for white audiences. In the scene on view here, the cast performs the cakewalk, a theatrical phenomenon with African American roots popular at the time.
Williams wears blackface, a practice that originated in the early nineteenth century with white minstrel performers representing racist caricatures of Black people. The makeup was adopted by some Black performers, too, in entertainment for Black audiences and white ones. Here, as was the norm, the supporting cast didn’t have to wear blackface because the lead did. This film was abandoned by its white producers due to the intolerant racial climate in the United States; it premiered at MoMA a century later.
Gallery label from 2019