As the nimble fingers of jazz pianist Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo glided across the ivory keys of the piano on the side of stage, my eyes were transfixed on the images being projected on the screen in front of me. It quickly became clear that what I and others in the theatre were witnessing was a once in a life time experience. It was as if we were watching history being constructed, or in this case reconstructed, in real time.
It was an evening that still replays in my mind a little over a week later.
Prior to the screening of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, Black Star series curator Ashley Clark introduced the film and provided extra context for both the film’s restoration and its place in history. Clark pointed out that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) had found a treasure trove of footage for films from 101 years ago. This included a collection of unedited daily rushes for one of the earliest known films with an all-black cast.
Featuring Bert Williams, one of the first popular black stars in the vaudeville era, wearing black face, the film was reassembled without a script, intertitles or production credits. The result is a captivating experience from the viewer’s perspective. Since the reconstructed film purposely includes multiple takes of certain scenes, we are provided with insight into the possible paths directors T. Hayes Hunter and Edwin Middleton could have taken with the story.
The plot of Lime Kiln Club Field Day is a basic romantic comedy of errors, as a man (Bert Williams) competes with the men in his social club for the affections of a young lady (Odessa Warren Grey). However, it was this glimpse into the film’s construction that, coupled with Egbo-Egbo’s live score, offered a greater understanding of cinema’s past.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day was made only 20 years into the history of cinema, and two years prior to the groundbreaking propaganda film Birth of a Nation. Considering that Hunter and Middleton’s work came 50 years before the end of slavery, TIFF’s unique presentation of the film really put us into the mindset of the audience of time.
Yes, it is both jarring and sad to see Williams wearing black face but, as Clark noted in his introduction, he did so to prevent others in the cast from having to. This speaks to the level of humiliation that many black actors and actresses were expected to endure in film. Furthermore, Williams frequent choice to wear black face in his films, thus playing into minstrel tropes, is still a point of contention for many over the years.
As uncomfortable as seeing Williams in black face is, especially with modern eyes, its historical relevance cannot be ignored. Offering a fascinating look into the past, watching Lime Kiln Club Field Day in the way it was originally intended was truly a magical experience.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day screened as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Black Star series running from November 3, 2017 to December 22, 2017.