A Morning Bath (1896)
This short film from Edison raises some issues about race in the nineteenth century, even though the content is in no way offensive to us today. It’s a reminder that all films have to be understood in context, and that context doesn’t necessarily excuse anything.
The movie is, simply, a woman bathing a baby in a washbasin, as women throughout the US did at the time. The baby is covered in soap suds (and crying), while the woman is looking off-screen, smiling somewhat nervously, for much of the picture, apparently receiving directions from men off-camera. None of this would be especially remarkable, except that the woman and child are African-American; so far as I can recall this is the earliest image of an African American woman on film.
The first interesting point about this movie is technical: although it seems to have been shot in a studio, presumably the Black Maria, this movie is shot against a white backdrop instead of the black backdrop usually used at the Black Maria. This “technical” issue, however, is probably related to race as well – a dark-skinned person would tend to fade into the background with a dark backdrop, especially with the quality of film available at the time, so they needed to use a lighter one. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had to shoot this a few times before they figured that out. The question this raises is, why use an African American for this role at all (especially given that it was pretty rare)? The answer seems to be indicated in the Maguire & Baucus Catalog, which states that “This is a clear and distinct picture in which the contrast between the complexion of the bather and the white soapsuds is strongly marked.” The contrast was exactly what the movie was filmed to demonstrate. It’s worth noting that the Library of Congress has excised offensive words from both this entry and a description from the Edison catalog – giving a sense of how the advertising for this film was handled, and presumably, the live narration that usually would accompany it. Thus, it is overly simplistic to think of this as a movie about an everyday event which happens to showcase diversity – the reasoning behind the film and its presentation was explicitly racist – although for us today this context is obscure.
Director: James H. White
Camera: William Heise
Run Time: 40 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).