Foster Photoplay Company

Founded in Chicago in 1910 by William Foster, the Foster Photoplay Company holds the distinction of being the first film production company established by and starring African Americans. Foster moved to Chicago in 1904 after spending years in New York at a theatrical manager and vaudeville booking agent. With Joe Shoecraft and Robert Hanson, he established the Foster Photoplay Company.

Located at 3312 Wabash Avenue, the first films produced by the Foster Photoplay Company included coverage of a YMCA parade and dedication and the accompanying ball game. This footage is widely considered the first black-produced newsreel. In 1912, though, the company branched out and began producing more than just newsreel material. The Railroad Porter, The Barber, and The Fall Guy were all short-form slapstick comedies that starred all black casts, including Lottie Grady and Howard Kelly. During his time running the company, Foster also continued to write for a number of newspapers under the pen name Juli Jones.

Despite seeing a positive response to his films, and receiving praise for their positive, realistic depictions of black characters, he failed to experience the same level of success as his primarily white competitors. While white-owned production companies received coverage and advertising placement in tradepaper publications, the only coverage Foster received was as the result of calling up the Moving Picture World offices himself. He described his productions in detail to the staff writer, saying, “I don’t want you to take my word for it that these comedies are a big hit. I just want you to come and see one of them and laugh your head off.”

A lack of attention from the mainstream trade publications, and an inability to help advance the company further pushed Foster to close the Foster Photoplay Company in 1917. Although he continued to write for a number of publications, he also returned to the world of film, acting as an assistant director in Hollywood in the ‘20s.

Selected Filmography

The Railroad Porter

The Barber

The Fall Guy

Selected Cast and Crew

William Foster

Joe Shoecraft

Robert Hanson

Anna Holt

Howard Kelly

Edgar Wilson