The Museum of Modern Art has unearthed a 101-year-old treasure in the form of a previously unknown Bert Williams film. The untitled and unfinished silent film is about an hour long and features Williams in blackface, which was how he performed on stage and on film for the majority of his career. Researchers believe the find is the oldest surviving film starring a Black cast.

The film follows Williams as he goes about his day at a local fair and tries to woo a woman (played by Odessesa Williams Grey), who is simultaneously being pursued by two other gentlemen.

There are a few scenes that are cringeworthy to 21st century viewers, such as a watermelon eating contest, but overall the film is an interesting and delightful peak into the moviemaking process at the time and the profound talent of that period’s Black entertainers. The cakewalk scene is joyful, and one can easily see how more contemporary dance traditions such as the “Soul Train” line, derived from that.

During a press screening of the film Oct. 24, MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi said that a couple of features make this film important. Besides the fact that it features the revered Williams, one aspect of the film that makes it noteworthy is a romance between two Black characters, which was unusual for the time period.

“This is pioneering in the sense that during this time period on stage, if there were Black characters in a romance, it had to be comical. It had to be a joke. In this film, it’s not a joke. The fact that this film highlights and ends with a romance is unusual. It’s a serious Black romance in the context of a silent comedy. I think that is one of the reasons this film was not ultimately released,” said Magliozzi. He also theorized that the release and success of the profoundly racist film “Birth of a Nation” may also have contributed to the decision not to release this film. Both films were shot around roughly the same time.

Another unique feature of the film is that the surviving reels show the “rushes,” which are the multiple takes film crews sometimes do for particular scenes. In the rushes, viewers can see the Black cast and the white directors and crew members interacting. There is also a moment in which burned cork is being applied to Williams’ face to touch up his blackface.

This film was rescued from destruction in 1939 by MoMA’s founding film curator, Iris Barry. The seven reels that compose the film’s footage were part of a load of 900 negatives that Barry acquired from Biograph as the production company shut down its Bronx location. Once the film was discovered among the other negatives, a research project was launched to find out more about the cast and crew. It took years of painstaking research to find the answers because no production credits survived. The researchers had to use facial recognition and biographical clues from people of that time period to piece together the names of the cast and crew.

The film will have its world premiere Nov. 8 as part of MoMA’s “Save and Project” film preservation series. An accompanying exhibition about the film, “100 Years in Post Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History,” is currently on display at MoMa and will remain there through March 31, 2015. As for the future of the film, the researchers and curators want to hand it over to contemporary Black artists to finish and/or interpret into new artistic efforts.

“We believe it should be completed by Black artists. They could sample from it, edit, make other interpretations and just complete it for us,” said Magliozzi.