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The Reeler Blog

The Long Shadow

By Miriam Bale

W.C. Fields was once called the greatest comic who ever lived next to Bert Williams. But who the hell is Bert Williams? In 1915, while The Birth of a Nation was establishing artistic and commercial benchmarks with its white cast portraying ethnic stereotypes in blackface, Williams was the superstar of Broadway -- a black man who also performed in blackface. He was a screen presence as well, and this weekend at MoMA, the program Introducing Bert Williams will feature two shorts from 1916 that Williams made and starred in.

A still from 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker (2005), featured this weekend at the Whitney Museum (Photo: Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)

Williams entered minstrelsy accidentally and reluctantly. Unable to pay for his education at Stanford in 1891, Williams hit the road singing, playing banjo and clowning. After he had earned some money, according to biographer Eric Ledell Smith, he burned the costume that he wore on this tour "for reasons that everyone will understand who has read of the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches." But because variations of this "coon" costume were the only way he could earn a living as an entertainer, it became a permanent part of his performances -- with increasingly subtle and bitter irony -- throughout his long, successful career. Whether his audience was fully in on the joke is unclear; Williams would often appear at New York white society parties as an entertainer in full black-tie and then bust out with his standard line: "Is we all good niggers here?"

About a hundred years later, Kara Walker's films and art (on view through this weekend at the Whitney) play with the same stereotypes and are greeted with similar confusion and unease. In a very layered statement in response to her reclamation of the word "Negress," she is quoted in the new exhibition catalog as saying, "[There are] lots of sophisticated people who get very amused by this back-handed insult to myself, which is, of course, always how black people get really successful."

Walker's work is based on narratives, or rather the reimagining of foundational narratives such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind with a twisted-up emphasis on the minor (black) characters. Her art is a process of questioning; her images ask or re-ask questions like, "How do you make a stereotypical image of a white man?" in Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Intentions, or that question of the birth of our nation in 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker.

Almost all of her work in the current retrospective is composed of cut-out paper silhouettes which, when brought to life in her films, move sensually with both fragility and violence. Rape, in every way imaginable, is another crucial part of this alternative history; "massa knock me up" is a key frame in one of her shorts and also the underlying theme of all of her mini-epics. There is a turbulence and pain in these stories, yet also the giddy humor of melodrama, as she described it in an interview with PBS; [] "The Negress, as a term that I apply to myself, is a real and artificial construct," she said. "Everything I'm doing is trying to skirt the line between fiction and reality." As with Williams, who said he only developed his sense of humor when he could see himself as another person, the mask of racial identity is revealed by the donning of this mask.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at January 31, 2008 12:54 PM

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