Blacks in Early Silent Films

     If you’ve noticed that African-Americans are rarely seen in silent movies, you’re right. In the earliest silent films, when the script called for a black character, a white person in blackface usually played the role. The first movie to use a black actor/actress was probably the 1903 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here’s a one-minute clip from that film. The quality is so poor, however, that you can’t really tell whether the actors are white or black.

     Here is another early film with some black performers, the very first Tarzan of the Apes made in 1918:  In this one-hour version, there is a black maid played in blackface by a black or white woman (again, film quality is too rough to tell which) and some native Africans played by genuine black people—fancy that! Fast forward to 6 minutes 30 seconds or 13 minutes 50 seconds to see them. Pretty bad acting all around, regardless of skin color. The cheesiest are the gorillas—the humans cavorting about in gorilla suits look like Halloween trick-or-treaters.  

Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 4:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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