During the beginning of the pandemic, Cara Caddoo was doing research. She had recently watched 1921 film, "By Right of Birth” and noticed strange clues within the film. So, she began digging, and it was this specific research on the film that led to her discovering a previously overlooked detail in a historical Black film.
“I was just trying to do research on the things I had available to me,” Caddoo said.
Caddoo is a historian at IU who specializes in film, mass media, race and Black history. In 2014, she also published the book, “Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life,” which chronicles the history of early Black cinema.
“Cara knew this particular film she was watching and noticed this funny little fifteen second blip,” said Rachel Stoeltje, Interim Director of the Black Film Archive Center at IU.
Caddoo was viewing a 1921 film produced by Lincoln Motion Picture Company film, one of the first race film producers in the U.S. The film “By Right of Birth” features only four minutes of surviving footage. Upon viewing the film, she realized pieces of the film seemed out of place.
“Her ability to catch that little moment really speaks to her knowing the film,” Stoeltje said.
When watching “By Right of Birth,” Caddoo noticed discrepancies in small parts. Evidence that she was watching an entirely different production came from the title card including a misplaced image of a cactus references to a soldier and someone named Joe, and two actors appearing who did not have credited parts.
After doing some independent research, Caddoo realized the mismatched pieces of media fit the description of “The Trooper of Troop K.” “The Trooper of Troop K” was an important race film that she had discovered when searching through the George P. Johnson Collection at the University of California.
Allyson Nadia Field, a professor at UCLA and scholar of Black cinema, was the first person Caddoo called when she made her discovery. Caddoo reached out to Field for help with this project.
After seeking her expert opinion about the film’s origin, both Caddoo and Field agreed they were dealing with a separate film altogether.
“It’s so remarkable and such a fantastic example of bringing someone like Cara with her knowledge, passion and commitment,” Stoeltje said.
While Caddoo had the Library of Congress verify this discovery, a big contributor to the project has been the IU Black Film Center Archive. The Black Film Center Archive holds archived films and projects made by Black creators from around the world made at many different points in history.
“They’ve always been incredibly supportive,” Caddoo said. “And they’re a great resource for Black cinema.”
When she’s not working as a professor for the university, she’s preparing to publish her second book about Noble Johnson, a Black actor and producer of the silent era. She hopes to release this book either next year or the following year.
“What we have is very minimal recordings of our early silent heritage,” Stoeltje said. “That's amplified for black cinema in particular.”