In September of 2014, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced they had discovered “the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast entitled,” Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). As Jim Crow tightened its grip across the American landscape, Lime Kiln Club Field Day was produced with an integrated crew, starring icons of the time period, including Caribbean born performer Bert Williams. Found as a series of unlabeled, unassembled raw takes, this film footage serves as proof of a radical and conceivably common trend toward early social progress and artistic innovation in film. In addition to MoMA’s discovery of this gem of cinematic culture, The Library of Congress established that 70% of the feature-length films made between 1912 and 1929 are either missing or destroyed, leaving behind only traces. With such a large amount from this period unaccounted for, the legacy of American cinema is therefore incomplete.
My project started with a series of questions: How much of this 70% statistic applies to Lime Kiln Club Field Day? Is it possible that film production in the teens and twenties was remarkably more integrated than previously imagined? How could I use contemporary film practices to re-establish a visibility of the past? Furthermore, how might a vision of a racially integrated historical identity serve to tease out and resolve tensions in present day American society?
"The freedom to “play” with both form and performance was a critical part of my process and drew from this same freedom afforded to early Black filmmakers in the turn of the century. While the process of filmmaking was still new, artists were unburdened by the formal cinematic standards which today can define work as being legitimate (or not)."
These questions lead me to focus on the people and moments in Black American history which had also become invisible and which I aimed to explore in a series of short films, American Rhapsody, some driven by narrative and others told more abstractly. The freedom to “play” with both form and performance was a critical part of my process and drew from this same freedom afforded to early Black filmmakers in the turn of the century. While the process of filmmaking was still new, artists were unburdened by the formal cinematic standards which today can define work as being legitimate (or not).
The collaborative nature in which each film was produced also drew from the spirit in which LKCFD was made–most notably how Williams sought the prospect of inclusion as a means of creative success; American Rhapsody was shot in much the same way. Actively seeking a diverse crew that was comprised evenly of blacks and whites, women and men (all local to New Orleans), was a way of reflecting the spirit of the original work both in process and result.
I felt it was Williams’ generosity which can be evaluated in his performance (wearing blackface so others didn't have to), his choice in casting (the nuances and diversity of characters), and his ability to blend beauty and humor as a proposed way of life, which made this work so radical in its design and which in my own body of work, I attempted to imitate.
Fundraising has begun for the editing process, which will be the next step in shaping each film and their totality as an omnibus. By cutting in a completely analogue workspace, I'm challenging my own level of technical control. Being trained with digital editing platforms, I've become accustomed to a particular kind of workflow, which both afford room for error and a great deal of precision. Subverting this reliance will allow me to connect with the materiality of film and explore new ways within my own process to allow the scenes to interact with each other via new approaches to pacing, tone and juxtaposition.
The way in which American Rhapsody is presented and experienced by viewers is the final phase of its completion and has required its own process of considering how the nature of a two dimensional art can be re-oriented to expanded our perception of space and its relationship to time and American history.
Having completed filming on all twelve films, my focus lies on these last two elements, the shaping of the works and forming of their place in the physical world.
Learn more about 2015 grant recipient Garrett Bradley.