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A silent film made 100 years ago but never seen publicly is about to get a world premiere. The Museum of Modern Art restored the film and now there's an exhibit. It's a rare and important discovery, a romantic comedy with a large cast of black actors and one of the era's famed icons playing the leading man. The story behind the film was largely unknown until now.
NPR's Walter Ray Watson has more.
WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: This silent movie without a name that was made in 1913, two years before "Birth Of A Nation" stirred American audiences with racist portrayals of greedy and violent blacks. By contrast, this motion picture is filled with hopeful images; black people depicted with respect. It was never released. After decade locked away in MOMA's film archives, it opens publicly next month. Recently the museum allowed a small group to watch the film unedited.
Pianist Don Sosin recently dropped by the museum and offered samples of the period music he plans to perform at the film's debut.
WATSON: An early scene from the film shows actress Odessa Warren Grey, the female lead, standing behind a wooden gate, her modest, cheerful house right behind her.
Curator Ron Magliozzi and his colleagues found Grey fascinating.
RON MAGLIOZZI: We looked at these costumes for years and said this has got to be somebody, this woman, she's amazingly poised, then discovered that she was a designer and a socialite, in fact.
WATSON: Grey was a stage performer and this was her only movie appearance. It's a romantic comedy. Three suitors vie for her attention. There's a picnic, or field day as they used to call it, scenes from a local fair topped off with dancing at a ball. Nothing surprising for a silent movie, but this one is really exceptional because most of the characters are black, dignified in manner and dress - something very rare for a feature film from this period.
DEBORAH WILLIS: The unseen story of African-American culture in film and on screen. This is an unknown story.
WATSON: Deborah Willis is chair of photography at NYU. She's watching the film for the first time.
WILLIS: I know images, I know still images of some of these moments. We see the importance of drum and bugle corps. We see the importance of the Masonic community, but also the merry-go-round. You know, that kind of freedom that happens with going around in a circle, enjoying wind blowing through the hair of the people.
WATSON: The scene captures the film's romantic leads on wooden horses and a camera takes us along for their spinning ride.
MAGLIOZZI: I would say, as a film person, a little ambitious scene for a production in 1913.
WATSON: Deborah Willis says there's a rare sense of joy in this film and its cast, especially the women.
WILLIS: The cinched waists, the flow-y skirts, you know, women working, women playing, women dating.
WATSON: The film is also special because Bert Williams is in it. He was famous, the first black Broadway star, a regular with Ziegfeld's "Follies." He made 80 records and was compelled to perform in blackface.
MAGLIOZZI: The lead comedians in these black musicals that were very popular in the period would be in blackface and the rest of cast appeared without makeup.
WATSON: Curator Ron Magliozzi.
MAGLIOZZI: It was kind of a sop to the white audiences that the lead comic is going to wear blackface. Everyone else can perform in a more authentic way.
CAMILLE FORBES: Reducing him to the blackface, the burnt cork makeup that he wore was doing a terrible disservice to him as a performer.
WATSON: Camille Forbes is the author of the biography "Introducing Bert Williams."
FORBES: What I found was a comedian who could do physical comedy, had dance moves that were part of his jokes, but then he would also go into this plaintive character which would later become known as the Jonah Man.
WATSON: Forbes says Williams demonstrated this persona on stage and in song. In 1906, he had a small hit and it became his musical signature.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY")
BERT WILLIAMS: (Singing) When life seems full of clouds and rain and I am full of nothing and pain, who'll soothe my thumpin', bumpin' brain? Who? Nobody.
WATSON: On "Nobody" Williams plays a sad sack character who's helpless and unloved, but in the film, Bert Williams is not a sad sack.
MAGLIOZZI: Bert gets the girl and that's significant. Bert kisses the girl - also very significant. This is a very lovely take. You can see their eyes flickering at the camera.
WATSON: Deborah Willis especially likes this scene.
WILLIS: You know, to see a black man and a black woman kissing on-screen, it just shows an intimacy that we rarely see, again, in black film during that time period.
WATSON: To find the names of the actors was a treasure hunt. The museum scanned 100 images from the movie and matched them against black newspapers of the day.
MAGLIOZZI: We basically used very crude facial recognition technology. We took the faces that we scanned from the film and we went to the black press. We went to The New York Age. They reported - in somewhat great detail - on any activity related to black performance.
WATSON: As for the dialogue and story, lip readers were brought in since no production notes or a script survived. Archivists found in the footage moving images of three directors working together; two white, one black, remarkable at a time when the country was greatly divided by race.
Bert Williams' fame helped him navigate those lines in life and even in death. He's buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, not far from Irving Berlin and Herman Melville. In 1922, five thousand people paid their respects to this immigrant from the Bahamas.
WILLIS: I think his legacy is significant in many ways.
WATSON: On this bright windy day, scholar Deborah Willis stands a few steps from Bert Williams' headstone.
WILLIS: Not only as a philanthropist and a comedian and a musician and a star, but also he transformed the idea about how to reread and reconsider black manhood.
WATSON: Camille Forbes believes this film reopens the book on Bert Williams' art and vision.
FORBES: It's a very powerful statement about Williams's efforts to perform the character he would wish to perform on his own terms and in an environment that makes that character the most rich it can be, the most meaningful it can be.
WATSON: Ron Magliozzi back at MOMA says he hopes the film's future lies beyond its upcoming debut and maybe this once-forgotten set of film negatives will one day come out on DVD.
Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.
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