Who Was the First Black Person to Star in a Movie?

The history of cinema is a fascinating subject, and one that continues to evolve with each passing year. As we look back on the early days of cinema, it’s important to acknowledge the pioneers who paved the way for actors of all races and ethnicities. While Hollywood has come a long way in terms of diversity, it wasn’t always so inclusive.

In fact, it took many years for black actors to break through and gain recognition in the film industry. But who was the first black person to star in a movie? Let’s take a closer look.

The First Black Person to Appear in a Motion Picture

The first black person ever to appear in a motion picture was named Bert Williams. Williams was born in the Bahamas in 1874 and later moved to California with his family. He began performing as a vaudeville actor in the late 19th century and eventually made his way onto the big screen.

In 1910, Williams starred in a silent film called “Lime Kiln Field Day.” The film was produced by the Biograph Company and directed by Edwin S. Porter, who is perhaps best known for his work on “The Great Train Robbery.” “Lime Kiln Field Day” was a comedy that featured Williams as the lead character.

The First Black Person to Star in a Feature-Length Film

While Bert Williams may have been the first black person to appear in a motion picture, he wasn’t actually the first black person to star in a feature-length film. That honor goes to Noble Johnson.

Johnson was born in Colorado in 1881 and began his career as an actor on Broadway. He eventually made his way out west to Hollywood and landed roles as an extra or bit player in several films. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that he got his big break.

That year, Johnson starred as M’Bongi in the film “The Symbol of the Unconquered.” The movie was directed by Oscar Micheaux, who was himself a groundbreaking figure in cinema as one of the first black filmmakers.

“The Symbol of the Unconquered” was a silent film that told the story of a black woman who moves to the American West to escape racism and oppression. Johnson’s performance as M’Bongi earned him critical acclaim and helped pave the way for other black actors in Hollywood.

The Legacy of Black Actors in Hollywood

While Bert Williams and Noble Johnson may have been among the first black actors to gain recognition in Hollywood, they were not alone. Over the years, many other talented actors and actresses have made their mark on the film industry. From Sidney Poitier to Hattie McDaniel to Denzel Washington, black actors have played an important role in shaping cinema as we know it today.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is still much work to be done when it comes to diversity and representation in Hollywood. While progress has been made over the years, there is still a long way to go before all voices are heard and all stories are told.


In conclusion, while Bert Williams may have been the first black person to appear in a motion picture, it was Noble Johnson who paved the way for other black actors by starring in one of the first feature-length films. Their contributions should not be overlooked or forgotten as we continue to strive for greater diversity and inclusion in cinema.