William Foster and the Foster Photoplay Company (1909)
William D. Foster (1860 - 1840)


 

The first black film company was formed by William Foster (also known as Juli Jones). out of Chicago. The Foster Photoplay Company was a film production company based in Chicago, Illinois. It is widely considered to be the first film production company established by an African-American featuring all African-American casts.

From 1909 – 1913 William Foster produced the first all-black cast film shorts. The company released a number of critically acclaimed films, including the Pullman Porter (1910), The Railroad Porter (1913), The Fall Guy (1913), and The Butler (1913). After the release of The Railroad Porter and The Fall Guy, the company also became known for their films' slapstick-style comedy. But, because of distribution problems he eventually folded the operation.

William Foster was born on September 16, 1860. As a young man, he worked at a racetrack in New York as a paddock man and clocker with the well known horseman Jack McDonald. At an early age, Foster became interested in the entertainment industry and soon worked as a publicity promoter for Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson's A Trip to Coonstown, a musical stage comedy performed exclusively by African Americans, in New York. He continued working as a publicity promoter for Williams and Walker's In Dahomey and Abyssinia comedy productions. After getting well known in the New York theatrical circuit, Foster moved to Chicago, where he found Robert Mott's Pekin Theater. The theater had originally been a music hall but was converted to a theater in 1904, and was known for its stock of famous writers, actors, and musicians. Foster worked for the Pekin Theater as both trusted adviser and business manager, making a point to book black vaudeville acts. Continuing his efforts to further the success of black performers, in 1909, Foster became secretary to the Goats, a group created to assist performers who were living in squalor or suffering from illness.

In 1910, Bill Foster opened the Foster Photoplay Company. He was unable to continue much farther with the company, and took on other jobs while the company was in operation. Within a year of opening the company, he became an entertainment journalist for the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper using the pseudonym "Juli Jones". Juli Jones quickly gained popularity and Foster started to write for more black newspapers across the country. As he wrote about other black performers, Foster felt his attraction to film production grow and in 1913, left his journalism career to focus on the Foster Photoplay Company. That same year, Foster produced his first film, The Railroad Porter. He continued his career in film making for 30 more years, but often found excuses to interrupt it for a fleeting hobbies.

In 1919, Foster returned to journalism, writing for Half-Century Magazine; however, Foster took a more serious tone than his music and performer reviews in the past. He wrote of the possibilities of the motion picture business and his disappointment of the African American community for failing to take advantage of the opportunities the motion picture business offered. Foster stated, "If our colored people with an interest in the race at heart, would pool their money, stop fighting each other, and get down to business, they would not only reap unlimited returns, but would do the race a great service."

By 1920, Foster found himself drowning in the film industry, unable to make a living as a movie producer. He began to sell sheet music at the William Foster Record and Roll Supply Company, and even appeared in an advertisement for Pathe Records, which helped promote the business. After the store failed, Foster bounced from job to job for years. He worked for a Haitian Coffee Company from 1925 to 1927 followed by associations with The Chicago Daily Times and The Chicago Defender, writing pieces focusing on African Americans. After quitting his job with The Chicago Defender after an apparent dispute over his friendship with a discharged employee, Foster found himself in movie business once again.

In 1929, Foster was appointed as a director for the Hollywood Pathe Corporation. He became connected with the job after he became friends with the African American doorman at Pathe. Bill Foster's first film at the Hollywood Pathe Corporation was titled Black and Tan. Black and Tan was more serious than anything Foster had created before, a movie that explored the underworld of rum runners and dope fiends. Foster's work in Hollywood was lucrative, however he yearned to return to the "race films" of his past. He began to plan the creation of a film company that would showcase high-class black films out of Santa Monica, California. Before he could establish his company, Foster died suddenly on April 9, 1940 in Los Angeles. He was 79 and was survived by his wife, Ella B. Foster.

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