Bahamian actor Bert Williams recognized as a ‘pioneer’ in American film


The first Bahamian actor ever to be captured on film is being recognized as a pioneer during a five-month long exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, reports.

Bert Williams is a name that is etched in the sands of time.

The late Nassau-native is one of few black men in the late 1800s and early 1900s who maintained a successful film and music career.

With partner George Walker, Williams pioneered the advancement of black performances in integrated musical comedies.

After Walker died, he continued his dynamic career, winning a Tony Award and cementing his name in history.

The exhibition at MOMA titled “100 Years In Post Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History” began on October 24,2014 and will continue until March 2015.

Screen shot of Bert Williams with co-stars in the film ‘Black Face.’The exhibit includes screen shots, a film showing of a lost film and a behind the scenes look at the film in which Williams is seen speaking with Caucasian directors at a time when integrated films were almost non-existent.

In the film, Williams applied a black makeup to cover his skin – a trend that became increasingly unpopular with the African-American community in later days.

Associate Curator at MOMA Ronald Magliozzi said it took a decade to complete all the research needed to produce the two-storey exhibition.

“I’ve always loved Bert Williams’ recordings. He was a remarkable performer and that’s how it started,” he said.

“I was always fascinated with how he was presented in ‘Black Face’ and I got more and more engaged with him and when I discovered that the museum had an unidentified film with him I was sold.”

Magliozzi said Williams’ contribution to the American film industry is tremendous.

Bert Williams and co-star Mary Pickford.“Unfortunately, he was not allowed to make many films and until now he has not been considered a key figure. But I think that this discovery and the amount of performance that you are allowed to see free of all of the racism is going to rewrite history and rewrite his reputation in film. I would project that this film will probably be recognized by the Library of Congress as a landmark film and that makes me very proud and happy for Bert,” he said.


The curator is not alone in his thinking.

Director of the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad said it is important that Williams’ contribution is taken seriously particularly because of his West Indian heritage.

“We have a wonderful diaspora from the Caribbean and to have a star of his caliber for the time period and to be able to see him and his films is a wonderful moment for Bahamian history,” he said.

Pulitzer Prize winning Cultural Critic Margo Jefferson also lauded the exhibition.

“The exhibit is incredibly exciting. It’s a great West Indian actor brought to life in ways that we have not been able to see,” she said. “He has been mythic legendary and now we can see what his great craft was.”

Sr. Director of Global Marketing Valerie Forbes-Alce of the Ministry of Tourism, Bahamas Consul General in New York Carolyn Young-Miller, Bahamian Kamela Forbes Mattheson and Public Relations Coordinator in MOT Kendea Smith. Senior Director of Global Marketing in the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism in New York Valery Brown-Alce said she is proud of the exhibit, which is the first of its kind.

“We are so proud that we are a part of MOMA and it’s exhibition in New York,” she said.

“Secondly, to be a part of something where a Bahamian made history when you look at the film and you see that he became one of the first black men in theatre to be integrated it’s a proud moment, he is a proud son of The Bahamas and so we couldn’t be more pleased.”

Kamela Forbes Mattheson, a Bahamian who lives in New York, also gave her stamp of approval on the exhibition.

“I think it is excellent,” she said. “I think it speaks to his upbringing which started in The Bahamas. He cultivated his talent in America. Being from The Bahamas I would like to take pride knowing that he was nurtured there.”

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