Maria P. Williams is a name that few film buffs and even film historians would know, but she is the earliest known African American woman film producer. She has one film to her name, The Flames of Wrath (1923). Currently, only one frame of the film is known to exist, and it is housed in the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916-1977 in the Young Research Library at the University of California Los Angeles.Maria P. Williams pictured at left with her husband, Jesse L. Williams
How would I know this? Well, back in 2006 I took a U.S. film history course at Indiana University (South Bend) which helped to pique my interest in women filmmakers. I ended up doing a presentation on Lois Weber (another fascinating and prolific filmmaker about whom much more is known), but through it all I was mostly interested in the names of women filmmakers which few people outside of academe might know. Maria Priscilla Williams is one of those filmmakers.
She was based in Kansas City, Missouri, and worked with her husband, Jesse, in their film production company, the Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange. Jesse was President and General Manager while Maria was Assistant Manager, Secretary and Treasurer. I have spent several years researching Maria P. Williams. I’ve utilized every electronic resource I can find; accessed (and purchased copies of) physical records through the Kansas City Public Library; communicated with film scholars such as Charles Musser at Yale, Jane Gaines who was at Duke at the time (and now at Columbia), Black women filmmaker expert Yvonne Welbon, and Charlene Regester at the University of North Carolina; bought a membership to Ancestry.com to access census forms and marriage and death records; even secured a reader’s card to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University (with some help from an Oxford contact). I couldn’t find much, though. Williams has haunted me for years, and she still remains a mystery. Jane Gaines invited me to write a piece for the Women Film Pioneers Sourcebook back in 2006 (originally a physical book schedule to be published by the University of Illinois Press but now an exclusively online project at the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University). The piece included four other Black women filmmakers from the silent and early sound era of American cinema, but Maria P. Williams stood out as someone I have always wanted to research more.
Dr. Yvonne Welbon dedicated her doctoral studies to researching and revealing African American women filmmakers from the earliest days of cinema up through the present day (this was back in the 1990’s). She set up the Sisters In Cinema website as a resource and wrote not only her doctoral dissertation on this topic, but also made a documentary film called Sisters In Cinema in which she interviews a number of Black women filmmakers. (If you’re interested in reading her dissertation, you can find it through university interlibrary loan, and you can purchase her documentary through her website.)
I look forward to the day when I’m able to dedicate more time to furthering my research on Williams. Until then, I remain a devoted admirer. If you research silent era women filmmakers, or Black women filmmakers of the early cinema, (or are simply interested in this topic), please get in contact with me!
Come back next week to read my piece on Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, activist, scholar, wife of Paul Robeson, and filmmaker in her own right.