For some of us (no names) the world of TikTok is baffling and bizarre. Why does Gen Z flock to it? Who knows, but they do, in droves. Anyone can be a “creator” on what Jason Parham at Wired calls “the most exciting cultural product of this time.” It also happens to be a place where “digital blackface” has evolved—an online cultural phenomenon in which Black users of a platform get disproportionately censored while others who adopt the trappings of Black American culture, often in exaggerated, stereotypical ways, rack up followers and views.
21st century forms of blackface persist for all sorts of reasons. The intent may not be consciously to demean, but the effects are usually otherwise, especially given the long history of blackface as a way of mocking Black Americans, while forcing Black actors to themselves perform in blackface to gain an audience and get work. Minstrelsy performed by white stage actors, comedians, musicians, etc. set a tragically low bar for Black actors.
A once-prominent example comes from the career of performer Bert Williams. “Largely forgotten today,” Claudia Roth Pierpont writes at The New Yorker, Williams was “the first African-American star: the most famous ‘colored man’ in America during the early years of the twentieth century.” He performed at Buckingham Palace, was the only Black member of Ziegfeld Follies (and a headliner) and played “alongside Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor—for nearly a decade.”
He did all of it in blackface, decades after the original Jim Crow character appeared in 1830. Born in 1874 in the Bahamas, says Caribbean novelist Caryl Phillips, Williams “was an outsider in all sorts of ways… He didn’t see himself to be fully a part of African American traditions, so in a sense he didn’t quite understand the full implications of the blackface performance. He saw it as part of his costume.” That may not necessarily be so. In his stage act, Williams and his partner resisted the practice for as long as they could, until they realized that they would be subject to constant violence from white audiences without it.
Blackface affectations helped Williams cross over into a film career. He “produced, wrote, directed and starred in two short films for Biograph,” the San Francisco Silent Film Festival notes, “A Natural Born Gambler (1916) and Fish (1916). Produced by a black man for white audiences, they were groundbreaking, however, these films featured characters and storylines that still satisfied dominant racist stereotypes of black men.”
In contrast, a third film, produced three years earlier, titled Lime Kiln Club Field Day, “one of a handful of surviving silent films with an all-black cast,” told a very different kind of story. Williams appeared in blackface, but the other actors did not. “The film … features one of the first examples of on-screen intimacy between a black man and a black woman—a kiss—along with scenes of middle class leisure; story elements that challenged the mostly negative, sometimes evil, depictions of blacks in the majority of white-produced films, which reached a distressing nadir in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released two years later.”
Lime Kiln Club Field Day was never completed. Its many unedited reels of film were only recently rediscovered, a century later, in the archives at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. See the film above, restored by curator Ron Magliozzi and preservation officer Peter Williamson, who conducted research “over nearly a decade,” the MoMA writes, to decipher the plot of the film and recover its production history, even going so far as to employ a lip reader and explore Staten Island and New Jersey in search of locations.”
Film historians do not know why the project was abandoned. They do know that Williams suffered significantly for the racist caricatures he felt forced to perform. Read more about his extraordinary career at The New Yorker and learn more about the Lime Kiln Club Field Day restoration project at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival site.
Watch Free Films by African American Filmmakers in the Criterion Collection … and the New Civil Rights Film, Just Mercy
Watch the Pioneering Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-American Filmmaker
Watch the First-Ever Kiss on Film Between Two Black Actors, Just Honored by the Library of Congress (1898)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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