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A black and white photo of a woman wearing a hat and a loose cotton dress. Her figure is set against a clear sky with white clouds on the right side of the frame. Her face is partially in shadow and her expression is solemn.

Observed Online Reviews

Garrett Bradley’s ‘America’

Complicating the politics of the archive.

Originally printed in the 2019 BlackStar Film Festival Catalogue

by Michael Boyce Gillespie

Still from America (2019), dir. Garrett Bradley

This project is saying, well, what happens if we… look at the Bert Williams piece as a starting point, with an indication of how progressive the hundreds of materials that are missing could have been? And if that was the case, it may possibly affect our perception of Black cinema, American cinema. —Garrett Bradley


What does it mean to talk about lost film?… To whom is a film lost? —Allyson Nadia Field

Garrett Bradley’s America opens with an archival headshot of Bert Williams before cutting to four stills of the actor on a film set, in character and blackfaced. The score features the sound of a door swinging open, then footsteps. It is the sound of people assembling. It’s showtime. The still photographs give way to a film clip of Williams and a beautiful woman joyfully riding a carousel. His eyes on the prize, he reaches for the brass ring, grabs it, and triumphantly smiles.

As Bradley states above, Bert Williams might constitute the beginning of a trajectory, a speculative writing of a Black film history. Moreover, her proposition lends itself to understanding how the idea of Black film suggests neither a mere reflection of truth, nor an art wholly devoid of cultural consequence. In this way, America thrives in this liminal suspension; it enlivens the archive in its rejection of staid conjecture from either pole.

America disputes considerations of early cinema as regressive — as opposed to the presumed exceptionalism of modern cinema — while fundamentally complicating the politics of the archive, and the writings of an American and African American history. The film is built on Bradley’s engagement with the consequential revelation of The Lime Kiln Field Day (1913), a silent film that is the oldest existing motion picture to feature African American actors. This is the film referenced in the opening sequence and throughout America. The film stars Williams, a stage and screen celebrity as well as a successful recording artist, whose brilliance was world renowned in the early 20th century. Left unfinished in post-production, but restored a century later and premiered at the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), the film becomes the constitutive trigger for America. Bradley frames Lime Kiln as bearing active traces of an invisible archive of American cinema and American history. Importantly, this framing thickens around issues of “film blackness,” African American culture, and what historian Robin Kelley terms “freedom dreams.” 

For Bradley, Lime Kiln is not merely a lost film now found. Instead, she understands it as material and active remnant that might illustrate a historical continuum of how black film as art renders the everyday and quotidian affairs of African American life. America does not simply re-enact Lime Kiln. Instead, it amplifies the 1913 film by exquisitely supplementing it. Bradley devises sequences that function as reverse shots in scenes from the unfinished source piece. Through this conceit, there is an enfolded sense of film historiography as contextual and accruing. America pivots on the writing of a Black film history, the promises and disavowals that shadow any politics of representation, and the concurrent ways that film signifies art/culture/history. The film’s gorgeous portraiture, coupled with a richly ambient score by Trevor Matheson, details the vast affective and aesthetic resonances of black visual and expressive culture.  Much of the film’s radicalness lies in Bradley’s formal experimentation and her forging of the historical past and the historical present as richly concurrent and enduring.


  1.  Devika Girish. “Sundance Dispatch: America.” Film Comment, 31 January 2019.
  2.  Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity, Duke University Press, 2015.