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Filmmaker Garrett Bradley’s “America” is Now Showing at the MoMA

Lime Kiln Club Field Day 1914, The MoMa

As part of Virtual Views and The Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series, filmmaker Garrett Bradley’s work in film is now showing at the Museum of Modern Art. Projects: Garrett Bradley, which is part of a multi-year collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is the 35-year-old artist’s debut solo museum exhibition in New York City.

Bradley’s film project on display, America (2019), is a multi-channel video installationfeaturing 12 short black-and-white silent films set to a score by Trevor Mathison and Udit Duseja. Bradley’s America cites many historic events, including African American composer and singer Harry T. Burleigh’s publication of “Deep River” in 1917, the murder of jazz bandleader James Reese Europe, and the founder of the Negro Baseball League in 1920. In 2019, America received the Philip Guston Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome.

“I see America as a template for how visual storytelling and the assembly of images can serve as an archive of the past and a document of the present,” Bradley has said. Each of the 12 films in the series depicts black figures from the early 20th century whose names have been lost throughout history.

Garrett Bradley, Photo by Alex Smith

During an interview, the filmmaker told The Studio Museum in Harlem’s curators Thelma Golden and Legacy Russell, “I was really interested in thinking about what a modern-day silent film could be, and thinking about the history of sound in films. When filmmaking began, there was just accompanied music that went with pictures—often a live score. Then, when dialogue was introduced, it was often just dialogue with music. The third stage was dialogue, music, and foley. So modern films can be quite noisy. With America, I liked the idea of trying to deconstruct that.”

Dispersed within each of the films is footage from Bert Williams’ Lime Kiln Club Field Day, an unreleased film made in 1914 that is believed to be the oldest surviving feature-length film in America with an all-black cast. By integrating clips from Lime Kiln Club Field Day, the filmmaker brings attention to a film that was thoroughly progressive for its time and celebrates black vernacular.

“There were two things that struck me about Bert’s film. One was the experience of both joy and pleasure, an authentic foundation for the film. We see this in the casting, the choreography, the costuming of characters surrounding Bert—the centrality of Odessa Grey. Secondly, this was shot just 17 years after Plessy vs. Ferguson, at the beginning of Jim Crow,” said Bradley.

America 2019, The MoMa

“My projects have all evolved naturally, one from the other. I came to them by way of my own life, by way of the community I am already a part of,” said Bradley. Bradley’s films most often explore subjects such as race, class, and southern culture. In 2020, Bradley became the first Black woman to win the directing award in the category of documentary filmmaking for her documentary, Time, at the Sundance Film Festival. Time follows Sibil Fox Richardson, an author, wife, and mother of six, whose husband was sentenced to 60-years in prison for bank robbery. Despite winning in a documentary category, the artist defines her style of filmmaking as experimental, exploring the space between fact and fiction.

Projects: Garrett Bradley is showing at the MoMA through March 21. Admission is free and open to the public, no ticket necessary. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, there is limited capacity. Visitors must enter on the street level and are required to wear a mask. Temperature checks and bag checks are required prior to entering the gallery.

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