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What Were the First Black Images on Film?

What Were the First Black Images on Film?

There was
quite a considerable amount of interest two weeks ago when the Museum of Modern
Art (MoMA) announced that they were currently in the process of restoring what
is believed to be the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a
black cast.

The seven
reels of the unreleased 1913 film, “Lime Kiln Field day,” will be the centerpiece of
a major exhibition “100
Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History,”
which is set to open at MoMA on Oct. 24, and will showcase excerpts and still
frames from the film.

Later. on
Nov. 8, an hour’s worth of restored footage will be shown on Nov. 8 in the
museum’s annual “To Save and Project” festival dedicated to film
preservation. The New York Times’ article (HERE) about the discovery of the
film, also shows a 30 second clip from the film, in which the actors perform a
cakewalk dance (which is sort of an early form of the Soul Train line).

As exciting and
groundbreaking as this news is about this previously unknown black film, which is
a major milestone in the history of black cinema, it does bring up the
question – what were the first black images ever to be captured on film?

That’s
actually a rather hard question to answer. It’s elusive since so many
silent films made at the birth of cinema (circa mid-1890’s), are lost, destroyed, thrown away or literally have rotted away, due to the
unstable nitrate film stock used back then, which deteriorates after a period
time.

What we do
have are records; and, according to film historian Thomas Cripps, in his seminal
book about early black film and images in cinema, “Slow Fade to Black,” he states
that, among the first black people to appear in films were a group of West Indians
who appeared in a series of short films shot for the Edison Kinetoscope, in 1894
dancing, bathing and shoving coal in ships.

However,
according to Professor Jacqueline Stewart of the University of Chicago, in her
2005 book, “Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity,” there were
Edison Kintoscope films of popular black performers of the time, performing their
stage acts, such as music hall performer Elise Jones, who made two such films in
November 1894, and vaudevillian James
Grundy, who also made two films for Edison company in January 1895.

There were
other short films as well, but the most important aspect about these early films were,
as Cripps says, that they were
“uncorrupted or altered by editing.”  
In other words, these short
films were somewhat anthropological in nature, objectively photographing
what was before the camera lens. When other filmmaking techniques came in, just
a few years later, by the early 1900’s, such as writing, editing and directing,
black images immediately began to be distorted with offensive, stereotypical
images, which, I don’t need to tell you, continue to this very day.

But of those
early Edison films, which ones still exist? Perhaps the earliest film that I can
find that still exists, is the 35-second short film, “The Morning Bath,” from 1896, in which a young black mother gives her child a bath in basin. While this, in
our day, may not seem so extraordinary, you must keep in mind that movies were, during the last few years of the 19th century, considered
a revolutionary new medium. In fact, some audiences thought that the images up
on the screen were real. There were actual instances of audiences literally
running for their lives out of a theater, when they saw a short film of a train
approaching a station, believing that it was real, and the train was heading
straight towards them.

The film of a
black mother humorously struggling to give her child a bath was, as Cripps says, “raw.
unedited reality.”
  One can only imagine what black film-goers felt and
experienced watching that larger than life image of someone who looked like
them up on the screen. Keep in mind that very few black people at the time had any
access at all to see such images, unless they lived in large cities, such Chicago or New York, and even then, there weren’t many movie theaters in
existence. Add to that the very real possibility that they weren’t allowed into those theaters, if they were not segregated.

More popular
short films of the period usually featured dancing, and, in particular, the
cakewalk, as you can see in the film clip below, which is quite charming in its
own way. But, to me, the most interesting is the Edison short from 1898, which features black Army troops in Cuba, during the Spanish American war of
1898, marching and disembarking a ship.

Though the
short does contain some basic editing, cut with other images shot during the
war, it’s still the raw, uncorrupted reality of proud black soldiers fighting for
their country, caught without any distorted lens, editorializing or subversion
of reality. It’s living black history.

Watch below:

 

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