Maria P. Williams: First African American Woman Film Producer

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 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.

Women Film Pioneers

On Tuesday, June 1, the Women Film Pioneers Project announced that its original plan to publish the first volume of a set of sourcebooks about women  in film history has been changed to what will be a digital digest online through the Center for Digital Research & Scholarship at Columbia University.  This should be good news to those interested in women’s accomplishments in the film industry since its inception, or just interested in film history in general.  The first effort in this new digital collection will focus on the United States and Latin America, with other areas to follow such as the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, etc.

The sourcebook is a collection of entries and essays on individual women who played some role in film, mainly as writers, directors and producers.  This is a collection about pioneers in the true sense of the word, women who blazed trails for those who came after them, dedicating themselves to cinema, a new and innovative artform the effects and widespread influence of which they did not yet fully observe, but I suspect may have predicted.  We are still amazed at how people are affected by film, 115 years (more or less) after the invention of the cinema.  While the WFP Project’s website is no longer up and running, the listserv is, for anyone interested in this topic.

During a self-directed research project, which is ongoing, that I began about five years ago on the two earliest known (to date) African American women filmmakers, I was invited to submit an article for inclusion in the sourcebook.  I accepted, then expanded my research (given a list of filmmakers by the editor to focus upon) to include three other African American women filmmakers, all who worked during the silent era or at the very beginnings of sound.

My research began, though, after being inspired by a brief presentation I did in a film studies class.  My presentation focused on Lois Weber, a widely recognized American female filmmaker in early cinema who made films about social issues and moral dilemmas, even on topics still incendiary today, such as abortion.  Out of that grew my interest in little known (or forgotten) women filmmakers, and I stumbled upon Dr. Yvonne Welbon’s site Sisters In Cinema which is a shining resource in the midst of such a glaring lack of information on African American women filmmakers.  I latched onto some names and began my research utilizing various resources, the library at Indiana University South Bend, online bookstores, countless Google searches, the New York University Digital Gallery, and exchanging emails with archivists, professors, librarians, film preservation groups, early film scholars…

Since I began the research, one filmmaker has stood out in my mind as the most interesting in terms of her background (not much is known), her location at the time (mid-America), her one film she produced and starred in (if not also directed!) and her life outside film as an activist within the African American community.  For those reasons, I have concentrated the bulk of my efforts since writing the essay in continuing to research Maria P. Williams from Kansas City, Missouri, who is to date the earliest known African American woman film producer.  Her one known film of which only one frame is known to be extant (located at the UCLA Library), is Flames of Wrath which she made in 1923, though some sources say 1922.  The film focuses on a theft and a trial, and synopses show that it was during the trial scenes that Maria P. Williams herself appeared in an acting role.  She and her husband, Jesse, owned a production company in Kansas City for a time.

I’m looking forward to seeing my essay included in this massive and profoundly important collection about women film pioneers.  It should be online later this year, and this first “set” is edited by Jane Gaines (renowned early cinema & feminist film scholar), Radha Vatsal and Monica Dall’asta.

The Women Film Pioneers Project was created at Duke University by Dr. Jane Gaines (now located at Columbia in New York City), and the project also has special groups which meet at the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

For those who’d like to know more about African American filmmakers or Black (or “Race”) films, the following list is a good way to start, though what is listed is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to available resources:

Blacks in Black and White: A Sourcebook on Black Films

by Henry T. Sampson

(probably best accessed directly through a university library or through inter-library loan)
Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era
by Jane Gaines

Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University

Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films
by Donald Bogle

Sisters In Cinema: A Resource Guide for and About African American Women Feature Filmmakers
(an important site run by Dr. Yvonne Welbon, a filmmaker, professor and widely known scholar on African American women filmmakers, and someone who gave me helpful suggestions on how to further my research)

Black Classic Movies

A Cinema Apart
(an informational site and store run by the late Larry Richards, a lovely man who offered me invaluable help with my research. Fortunately, his family still runs the site/store.)


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