- The film “No” includes a clip of a black rider on a galloping horse.
- Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer, tried to capture horses and other animals in motion.
- His photographs offer a glimpse into the success of black riders in the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of the first visuals in Jordan Peele’s No includes a clip of a black rider on a horse galloping in an exciting loop.
“Did you know that the first collection of photos to make a motion picture was a two-second clip of a black man on a horse?” Emerald Haywood, played by Keke Palmer, asks at the beginning of the film.
The clip was made from a series of photographs taken by Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s.
Like the characters in No, who attempt to capture photos and videos of an elusive alien presence, Muybridge set out to capture an almost impossible shot using 19th-century technology: galloping horses.
Muybridge’s photographs not only helped to better understand animal movement, but also offer a glimpse into the success of Black people during the Jim Crow era, historians say.
“The world of sports and entertainment was one of the few in which African-Americans could excel,” said John Ott, a professor of art history at James Madison University. “The photographs show the opportunities and means by which middle-class livelihoods could be achieved.”
The story behind Muybridge’s photographic work
Beginning in 1873, former California governor and industrialist Leland Stanford first commissioned Muybridge to photograph one of his horses. The project was successful, capturing the horse at full speed.
The project started by Muybridge and Stanford was interrupted in October 1874 when Muybridge discovered that his wife was having an affair with their friend. He followed the friend and just shot him. Muybridge was arrested that night.
When he was tried for murder in February, Muybridge claimed he was insane due to a severe head injury sustained in a wheelchair accident that had killed more than one person before. He was eventually acquitted on the grounds of murder. Until 1877, Muybridge continued his work with Stanford.
Muybridge captured more horses running at Stanford Farm in 1878. The Horse in Motion series included photographs of a horse, Sallie Gardner, with a rider that some historians believe he might have been a black rider.
The clip used in “No” comes from a later project Muybridge worked on with the University of Pennsylvania around 1883. He and Stanford had fallen out over credit issues. The university commissioned Muybridge to extend his earlier work to examine other forms of movement, from the movement of kangaroos and lions to people performing somersaults and lifting weights.
Muybridge published his final collection, titled “Animal Locomotion,” in 1887. The collection included photographs of an unnamed black rider riding a horse named Sallie G. The only other person of color featured in the collection was Ben Baileymixed martial arts boxer.
Historians say the inclusion of black athletes was twofold
As an outsider from England, Muybridge was not deeply involved in political and social struggles in the US, according to art historian and curator Philip Prodger. But he said the inclusion of black athletes in Muybridge’s collection offered a glimpse into their place in the social milieu at the time.
Sports presented one of the few opportunities for black Americans to achieve a middle-class life, according to historians. The majority of the black population at that time were laborers and held other service jobs.
“Boxing and horse racing were two areas where they could make a name for themselves and mingle with white Americans,” Ott said.
Black riders in particular enjoyed great success. In 1875, the inaugural year of the Kentucky Derby, 13 of the 15 jockeys competing were black. Fifteen of the first 28 derbies were won by black riders.
But the opportunities came at a cost. The success of black jockeys exposed them to long-standing racist ideas that African Americans were animalistic and “lesser,” according to Ott. He added that horse racing was also a physical sport: riders had to keep their weight down and many turned to alcohol to curb their hunger.
As jockeys, originally not considered a high-level job, became more respected as a profession, and as horse racing became more lucrative, Black Americans were increasingly excluded, Protzer said.
In 1905, the Washington Post published an article titled “Negro Riders on the Wane: White Jockeys’ Superior Intelligence Subsedes”, where the author argued that the decline in black jockeys was due to the fact that the sport was no longer considered “disgraceful”.
“It cuts both ways, but it’s ultimately a story of African-Americans taking advantage of opportunities available to them and recognizing the importance of imagery — using it to present themselves as whole,” Ott said.