In fall 1913, a pioneering cast of black performers and an interracial crew, including directors Hunter and Middleton and the veteran comedian and Ziegfeld Follies stage star Bert Williams, gathered in the Bronx to make a motion picture. After well over an hour of film had been shot, the project was abandoned by its white producers, who packed the footage away in unmarked cans, leaving no written record of its existence. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, MoMA film curator Iris Barry rescued a cache of nine hundred negatives from the vaults of the bankrupt Biograph film studio, by chance securing the survival of the 1913 footage as well as still images and moving-image fragments documenting the cast and crew on set.
The earliest surviving feature-length film with an all-black cast, Lime Kiln Club Field Day follows the efforts of Williams’s character to win the hand of a local beauty (Odessa Warren Grey). Its highlights include a high-energy African American dance routine that still feels contemporary and a display of onscreen affection between the lead actors, at a time when such scenes were considered unacceptable for white audiences. Its singular imagery attests, a century later, to the achievements of this little-known company of performers. A long-lost landmark of film history, it is evidence that attempts were made at interracial collaboration in American film much earlier in the century than was previously known.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
In 1913, the cast of the Harlem-based theatrical production Darktown Follies joined Caribbean-American stage star Bert Williams at the Biograph film studio in the Bronx to appear in a motion picture that reflected a more progressive image of black social life than had previously been seen on screen. Among the dances shot for the film was the cakewalk, a theatrical phenomenon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a feature in a number of early race-themed films. Celebrated as authentically African-American, the dance had roots in the minstrel walk-around, plantation ring-shout, and African circle dance, and possessed a vitality and potential for improvisation that stood in contrast to the formality of imported European forms of dance.
Gallery label from 2019