On Blackface, Bert Williams, and Excellence

Publicity still portrait of American stage actor and Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, 1915. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

“Who doesn’t wanna look like Diana Ross?” journalist Megyn Kelly asked panelists Tuesday morning on her news show, during a segment about Halloween costumes. She was defending former Housewife Luanne de Lesseps, who dressed up last year in a crude costume that looked nothing like the glamorous Ross, with a white jumpsuit, a tower of a curly wig, and darkened skin. “She wants to look like Diana Ross for the day — I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween,” Kelly said. Her claim to the harmlessness of blackface betrayed an empathy problem, but also an ignorance that was too much to ignore; NBC’s top brass reacted swiftly. It seems for that and, (likely, mostly), the show’s lackluster ratings, the commentator’s morning show was canceled. At least publicly, blackface is universally condemned now, and understood to be borne of racist intentions. But Kelly’s comments reveal several truths about a complicated anxiety at the heart of American entertainment and the tradition of minstrelsy upon which it all resides.

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I caught a screening of the silent film Lime Kiln Club Field Day earlier this fall, at an independent theater in Brooklyn. Possibly the oldest surviving set of moving images with a cast of Black actors, Lime Kiln has made rounds on the independent circuit since 2014, when it first released to the public. It was made a century earlier, in 1913, and restored from a trove of negatives found in MoMA’s film department. Legendary vaudevillian Bert Williams, born in Nassau, Bahamas in 1874, stars. He plays a lovable, almost clever oaf who competes with three other gentlemen for a local woman’s favor.

The actors in Lime Kiln filmed scenes of leisure: sitting in a local club and at tables in their homes, walking on sidewalks, and, at a raucous field day, dancing a cakewalk. Bert Williams is excellent in the role. His impressive comic timing, flexible, open face, long-limbed stature and commanding posture make it impossible to look anywhere else. He plays the role in blackface — a mask of burnt cork, a kinky wig, long black gloves. The rest of the cast does not. MoMA’s associate curator Ron Magliozzi called this “a sop to the white audience,” and noted “the fact that the lead wore blackface allowed the rest of the cast not to wear blackface before white audiences.” Camille Forbes, author of Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Star told me in an email that the mask for Black performers of that era “might be considered the price of admission to the entertainment world,” and that fair skinned Blacks, especially, were under pressure to cork up.

It is because minstrelsy, the theatrical practice that began in the urban North in the 1830’s, in which white men ridiculed southern Blacks, “established the representation of blackness, in the society at-large and entertainment in particular,” said Forbes. Its singular popularity fueled its influence. According to the scholar Eric Lott:

Minstrel troupes entertained presidents (including Lincoln), and disdainful high-minded quarterlies and rakish sporting journals alike followed its course. Figures such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Bayard Taylor were as attracted to blackface performance as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany were repelled by it. From “Oh! Susanna” to Elvis Presley, from circus clowns to Saturday morning cartoons, blackface acts and words have figured significantly in the white Imaginary of the United States.

When Williams filmed Lime Kiln Club Field Day, America’s motion picture industry was not yet two decades old. Production on D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation began the same year. When it released in 1915, it became the first blockbuster, and its direct nods to minstrelsy (white actors blacking up to play one-note, not-quite-human black characters and blatant Confederate nostalgia) reinvigorated the Klan. Lime Kiln Field Day lingered in post-production and, despite its shortcomings, forms a contrast, an alternate history —one of  Black excellence in American performance. It showed Black characters struggling toward their own goals, with back stories.  Lime Kiln’s cast of 50-100 actors haven’t yet been all identified, but we know some performers had previously worked in the Harlem-based musical revue, “Darktown Follies,” which drew white audiences uptown. “Darktown Follies” anticipated the all Black Broadway musical Shuffle Along, which played a part in Harlem’s artistic flowering of the 1920s and 1930s and helped launch the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.

Williams had been a working actor since starting out in 1893 in minstrels. He was a featured performer at Zeigfield’s Follies for nearly a decade starting in 1909. He also became a legitimate star of the record industry, composing and recording songs for Columbia Records. Once he started, he never abandoned blacking up, and he played several variations of the long-suffering “Jonah Man” throughout his career.

At my Brooklyn screening of Lime Kiln, a piano accompanist followed the drama in a jaunty ragtime. The reconstructed film lays out alternative takes of many scenes, arranged with an estimated chronology of the storyline, based on the feedback of lip readers MoMA hired to study the actors’ encounters. There’s also footage of the cast and crew between scenes. It is dizzying to watch some of the scenes in public space — there’s the blackface, as well as other humiliations like a wrestling match for discarded shoes and a watermelon eating contest. The audience was mostly white, with a smattering of Blacks, and sometimes, during close ups of Williams’ facial contortions, I felt a simmering discomfort at the laughter of my white neighbors. Still, Williams was known to have performed in only two other films, both shorts — A Natural Born Gambler and Fish — both released in 1916. The multiple takes in the Lime Kiln restoration reminded me how rare it is to see these particular actors in this particular way, how invaluable is every frame.

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Williams stated in an interview that blacking up allowed him to find his actual humor, to conceive of himself, finally as a character. It explains the unsettling mix of feelings I had watching him being excellent, yet, still, to my eyes, debasing himself. By most accounts, he was an apolitical artist in a politicized age. During his professional life, the U.S. formalized rollbacks to Reconstruction and institutionalized Jim Crow; concerned citizens created institutions in response. W.E.B. Dubois’s Niagara Movement, the NAACP, Black Greek Letter Organizations, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs all arose during this era. What the scholar Imani Perry calls Black formalism — ritual practices “internal to the black community,” concretized. Some of the new Black organizations and associations that employed these rituals were purely social, with no explicit connection to politics, yet had an implied, vested interest in the sustenance and uplift of Black people in an apocalyptically difficult time.

Williams made no formal statement of protest, expressed no pro-Black sentiments on the record. He did chafe at the racist treatment he could not avoid, and claimed concern for racial uplift. He and ten other Black men in entertainment started the Frogs, a social club for Black artists based in Harlem. Williams led the art committee. Their aims were philanthropic, and also, to create an archive collection for a theatrical library. They held a popular annual social event, “The Frolic,” with a ball and vaudevillian revue. Many Black people held Williams’s accomplishments in esteem. The Black press assiduously and soberly covered his performances and business dealings. When he died in 1922 at age 47, after working through illness and collapsing near a stage after performing in Detroit, Forbes says Black critics “assess[ed] his role as a black man as well as his influence as a performer.” (Emphasis mine).

Eric Lott described the pull of minstrelsy as a combination of “love and theft,” which suppressed “the real interest in black cultural practices they nonetheless betrayed.” It was an attempt, in the anxious antebellum period, to enforce a social order, and in various eras of rampant social confusion, its tropes and formulations, which never really disappear, become lightning rods again. Kelly’s comments about walking in the skin of Diana Ross mirror this “love and theft,” and our current era is one where we may be approaching another nadir, another near-apocalyptic, broad loss of hard-won rights and access to the privileges of citizenship, similar to the cascading losses of Bert Williams’s time. It’s probably why our discourse is so contentious, even among friends and comrades. It helps explain our interest in relics like Lime Kiln. 

In a piece from the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, Wesley Morris laments, “Everything means too much now.” He bemoans how “we’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.” It annoyed Morris that he couldn’t pan Insecure the way he wanted, without blowback, because it feels so “necessary” to see a Black woman beautifully shot, performing irreverent messiness and coming into her own. He’s right — we’re all entitled to art for its own sake. But everything has always meant a lot, and excellence has always been a factor, and the threads of politics and aesthetics rub up against each other all the time. Probably, we need to imagine even more lenses through which to think and talk about art and culture, and demanding the best, from everyone, on all fronts, may be the way we get through the difficulty that could be coming.