Film

Retelling the History of Black Music: Bert Williams, Godfather of the Black Stage and Studio

Bert Williams in blackface started a conversation about representing blackness within a mainstream context that has continued through virtually every crossover moment in black American life.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes --

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries

To Thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask” (1895)

He stands out among a cast of black actors: he’s the only one in blackface, burnt cork darkening his facial features and contrasting against his exaggerated lips. Why is that?

Those expecting some sort of watermelon-eating, chicken-stealing, shuffling and jiving, massa-this and mammy-that caricature may be surprised to note that this performance bears no such trace. Sure, some of the dialogue screens of this early silent movie don’t make exclusive used of the King’s English (“Gentlemen,” our lead pretends to read from a paper, “dis pernicious habit ob gamblin’ must be squelched.”), but there really isn’t anything here that would make a modern-day, culturally sensitized audience squirm in discomfort.

He stands out also because he’s a gifted performer. Although he’d been a stage star for a good 20 years by the time this 11-minute featurette was made, he seems perfectly at home in front of the camera. His movements are crisp and exact, his comic bits executed with perfect timing. When the gentlemen’s club president demands that he pay up his dues, he makes us feel the reluctance of parting with his last dollar. When a round of poker gets going after a popular swell hits town, our hero commands our attention with presence and clear, sharp gestures, relishing in the cards he’s surreptitiously fed by one of his cohorts. When the cops break up the game and haul the players away, he’s so undone he faints, and gets deposited into the police vehicle stiff as a board.

The movie concludes with our hero in custody, still in his slightly worn topcoat and suit, recreating a bit that had been popular in the performer’s actual stage act a few years back. He pantomimes all the players and movements in a poker game, from the dealer shuffling the deck and distributing the cards, to pondering the possibilities of his hand, to genially giving the other players the additional cards they request, to becoming quite concerned when the opponent to his right asks for only one card.

Since the routine had been in his repertoire for a while, it’s not surprising that he executes it with such practiced skill and precision. But let’s remember that he’s still in blackface, that most controversial and vilified mode of performance for more than 150 years now, yet there’s not a single trace of buffoonery in his act. In fact, we end up sympathizing with the character.

The film is A Natural Born Gambler, produced by Biograph in 1916. The star is Bert Williams, known throughout the world as one of the comic geniuses of the era. He only made a handful of movies in his fleeting career; this well-preserved two-reeler seems to be the only such footage of a Williams performance available on YouTube, and presumably anywhere else outside of a film archive. Although his musical recordings are readily available, Natural Born Gambler is pretty much the only visual evidence of his brilliance as a performer. It only scratches at his enormous impact.

Williams was the first black crossover star of the 20th century. He made his name performing in exclusively black ventures, then became the first black performer to be featured in a mainstream vehicle. He chose to perform exclusively in blackface, a medium many blacks found (and still find) demeaning, but Williams, if A Natural Born Gambler is any evidence, always invested his characters with full dignity, and strove to bring out the universal strains of humor in the situations he depicted.

He was a well-read, studious performer, who helped put the lie to the notion that blacks had some sort of natural instinct for making merry on stage. He endured countless racist indignities from the society at large and, in many cases, from his fellow performers. Yet he never let them define him or his work, and aimed ever higher throughout his career. He was, literally, a trouper to the very end. He died before the world had heard of Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith, but his impact on American culture and entertainment continues to resonate.

Camille F. Forbes’ new biography Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway and the Story of America’s First Black Star (Basic Civitas, 2008) aims to bring Williams back to life, and into context, for our time. We find that Williams was the first to experience many of the themes sounded throughout the history of blacks in entertainment, struggles and achievements we more readily associate with more recent performers like Sidney Poitier and Nat King Cole. Every black person who’s ever had aspirations of moving the crowd, it would seem, from hoofers to rappers, owes Bert Williams an enormous debt.

Egbert Austin Williams’ destiny was the stage. Born in the Bahamas in 1874, his family moved to America when he was ten, eventually settling in Riverside, California. Williams left school at 16 to hit the road as a medicine show barker, and never looked back. He landed in San Francisco in the early 1890s; his first break there was with Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrels.

The minstrel show, which had been all the rage in American entertainment for 50 years by then, was a performance revue of song, dance, monologue and comic sketch. It generally featured white performers representing black characters – make that presumed archetypes such as the carefree Jim Crow (yes, minstrelsy is where that moniker came from) singing songs and wheeling about, or the citified dandy Zip Coon – by darkening their faces with burnt cork and singing and speaking in an exaggerated black dialect.

Blackface became so popular that troupes would hype themselves as being more believably black than the others (the adjective “Ethiopian” was often used in a troupe’s name to denote “authentic” blackness), and even honest-to-God black minstrels had to blacken up. The Mastodon Minstrels gig was Williams’ first experience with blackface; after a disastrous first night, he vowed to never blacken up for the stage again.

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