Watch Lime Kiln Club Field Day, One of the Earliest Surviving Feature Films with an All Black Cast (1913)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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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