I enjoy educating others about film history and the early years of cinema.
While there is still plenty of work to be done to have diverse casts in Hollywood films, there has been some progress over the years. Here is a list of the 10 earliest films with an African-American cast.
1. "Something Good – Negro Kiss" (1898)
The first romance film starring black actors, Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898) starred vaudeville actress Gertie Brown and theater composer Saint Suttle. Both were members of the dance group Rag-Time Four, which performed variations of the cakewalk dance.
In this intimate scene, Brown and Suttle hug, kiss, laugh, and playfully perform dance moves, which implies they were at the studio to perform the cakewalk on film. In a time when racist caricatures pervaded the media, Something Good stands out as a positive, authentic portrayal of African-Americans for its time.
University of Chicago film professor Allyson Nadia Field has said, “There’s a performance there because they’re dancing with one another, but their kissing has an unmistakable sense of naturalness, pleasure, and amusement as well… It’s not a corrective to all the racialized misrepresentation, but it shows us that that’s not the only thing that was going on.”
2. "A Fool and His Money" (1912)
Alice Guy, the world’s first female filmmaker, directed over one thousand short films throughout her lifetime. One of them was A Fool and His Money (1912), a film with an all-black cast. It was considered lost for decades prior to being found in a flea market in Stockton, California.
Actor James Russell starred as Sam, a poor laborer who pines for a rich woman named Lindy. One day he comes across a large sum of money, which he uses to buy new clothes, jewelry, and a car. Lindy is won over by this display of wealth, and the two become engaged. At the engagement party, Sam gambles away his money, losing everything to a card shark. Lindy runs off with the card shark, and Sam returns to his old job.
In addition to working with actors of different races, Guy was the first woman to own a film studio and one of the first directors to shoot on location. She made her last film in 1920 and sold the studio in 1922.
3. "The Railroad Porter" (1913)
Back in 2013, New York’s Museum of Modern Art discovered seven reels from an all-black musical-comedy called The Railroad Porter (1913). Curators believe it was shot on set in New York and on location in Englewood, New Jersey. The Museum also uncovered footage of the black actors interacting with a white crew behind the scenes.
This film was produced by the Foster Photoplay Company, the first film company established by an African-American, and the first to produce films with African-American casts. The founder was theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist Bill Foster.
Vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams, who starred in The Railroad Porter, also wrote In Dahomey in 1903, the first full-length Broadway musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans. Foster, who worked in publicity at the time, was responsible for promoting it.
The Railroad Porter contains a kiss between Williams and a female co-star—the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. There’s also a two-minute, full-cast performance of a traditional dance called the cakewalk, which Williams helped popularize among theatrical audiences.
Little to no record of later Foster Photoplay films have survived. They might have had all-black casts, or they might have not.
4. "Lime Kiln Club Field Day" (1913)
For his next film, Bert Williams collaborated with other African-American actors/musicians, including Abbey Mitchell, who rose to fame in the Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, and Sam Lucas, who later starred in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914).
Lime Kiln Field Day (1913), also known as Lime Kiln Club Field Day or Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Field Day, was produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (1895-1916) and Klaw and Erlanger, a theatrical production duo based in New York City. It starred several members of the Darktown Follies, the short-lived black version of the Ziegfeld Follies.
The plot revolves around a con man, played by Williams, who competes with two other men for the affections of a beautiful woman, played by Odessa Warren Grey. Much of the film takes place on fairgrounds, where the characters are seen dancing, competing for prizes, and going on rides. Such depictions of joy and leisure were unprecedented for black characters at the time.
Klaw and Erlanger left the project in the midst of post-production, leaving the film unfinished. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art bought 900 cans of film from the Biograph Company, with Lime Kiln Field Day among them. Some of the footage was printed in 1976, and the unedited film was screened for the first time in 2014.
5. "Aladdin Jones" (1915)
Historical Feature Films was one of the first production companies that cast African-American actors. However, the studio was run by white producers, and the films often contained racial stereotypes.
Aladdin Jones (1915) was one such film. Though produced by Historical, it was distributed by Ebony Film Corporations, another company that cast black actors but was run by white producers. Jimmy Marshall played a lazy drunkard with an overbearing wife, played by Florence McClain. The film contains a dream sequence where Marshall fantasizes about finding a magic lamp, which he uses to wish for liquor and a shack to sleep in.
6. "Two Knights of Vaudeville" (1915)
Marshall and McClain worked together again in Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915), a comedy about two buffoonish theater-goers who jump onstage and join the vaudeville show. The film portrays blacks as illiterate, as the intertitles contain grammar mistakes and the hand-drawn advertisements for the theater contain misspellings and backwards letters.
7. "Money Talks Downtown" (1916)
Then, in Money Talks in Downtown (1916), McClain played a greedy, superficial woman looking for a light-skinned rich husband. Marshall’s character tries to win her over by lightening his skin, but is ultimately unsuccessful.
8. "A Natural Born Shooter" (1917)
Historical's last film was A Natural Born Shooter (1917), which starred McClain. The other actors were Frank Montgomery and Bert Murphy, who both appeared in Aladdin Jones, Two Knights, and Money Talks. There are no existing records of the plot or film crew.
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9. "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" (1916)
In 1916, African-American actor Noble Johnson and his brother George founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, a studio owned and operated entirely by black filmmakers. As they starred only black actors, the company’s films were only allowed to be screened in “Colored Only” movie theaters, along with select schools and churches.
The purpose of the Lincoln Company was to create more opportunities for black actors, and to take charge of the narratives that often portrayed them unfavorably. The Johnson brothers are now considered the first successful black film producers in Hollywood.
The company’s first production was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), a film about a black oil engineer who rescues a white woman and is rewarded with a chance at success in the oil business. This was a subversion of the traditional narrative of the violent black man and the victimized white woman.
Noble Johnson played an unspecified role in the film. Though the Lincoln Company only lasted five years, Johnson's career spanned several more decades, with his last role being a Native American chief in North of the Great Divide (1950).
10. "A Trooper of Troop K" (1917)
The second film from the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, A Trooper of Troop K (1917) is considered the first “black Western.” Noble Johnson played a 10th Cavalry soldier in the segregated U.S. army. His brother George also played an unspecified role.
The film portrayed the American operation against Mexican revolutionary forces in June 1916, which resulted in a massacre of black troops near the town of Carrizal during their pursuit of General Pancho Villa. Ten U.S. troops were killed along with 45 Mexican soldiers.
Director Harry A. Grant’s previous credit was The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916) from the year before. He went on to direct the Lincoln Company’s last film, By Right of Birth (1921).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Sarah Nour
Jim Hall on July 14, 2020:
My aunt Beulah Hall aka Beulah Hall Jones appeared in many early Black film projects dating back as far as we can tell 1914-1916. Born on June 28, 1899 in San Antonio, Texas, USA. She was an actress, known for Black Narcissus (1929) Staring Ford Washington Lee, John William Sublett, Beulah Hall. The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) A Trooper of Troop K (1917) Judge Priest 1934 and Drums Along The Mohawk 1939 with Stars: Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver. She died on October 8, 1952 at the early age of 53yrs. in Los Angeles, California, USA. I Would appreciate any additional info. you might have. I can be reached at huntersjh at sbc global dot net. Keep up the great work.
Jackie on December 07, 2019:
I would like to also say a very big and I feel a well deserved Thank You for the research that youve done. I just began to do some research my self and I beginning to see that there is so much to uncover. But because of individuals like yourself, it makes it a little easier.
Sally Osgood on May 19, 2019:
Having just recorded, Stormy Weather, from Turner classics, which also featured Cabin in the Sky, my curiosity was piqued. It was surprising to learn how early African American films began. It would be great to see a screening of some of these films.
Sytaria on February 21, 2019:
Wow so much to know when you have one thing to lean with
Rachelle Williams from Tempe, AZ on November 22, 2017:
Thank you for introducing me to these classics. Now, I'm going to do my best to try to find copies....I'll let you know how that turns out. You've gained a loyal follower!