William D. Foster was a pioneering black film producer who was an influential figure in the Black film industry during the early 20th century. He along with Oscar Micheaux paved the way for the modern black film industry. Foster also became the first African American to found a film production company, establishing the Foster Photoplay Company in Chicago in 1910. Foster wanted African Americans to portray themselves as they wanted to be seen not as others depict them. He was an actor under the name Juli Jones and worked as an agent for other big name vaudeville stars.
Foster was born in 1884. Not much is known about his earlier life. He started his career as a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, a local black newspaper, writing under the name Julie Jones. He also wrote for other newspapers.
When Foster took on making films, racial stereotypes of blacks was the norm in the industry. In the early 20th century, blackface was still being used to represent blacks in film. White actors covered their faces completely with a black substance-like makeup. The actors drew on huge distinguished red lips to make the face stand out more. This technique emphasized the racial stereotypes that existed and was most prominent starting in the mid-19th century.
The minstrel shows showcased blackface actors at the expense of the African-American community. The shows made fun of blacks and impersonated them by making them look like buffoons and imbeciles, using stereotypical characters such as the mammy figure – a dark-skinned, large female who watched over the white children – Sambo, a young male who is lazy and always lounging around; and Uncle Tom, a docile and loved family member who works on the plantation. Foster tried to break down these stereotypes. He entered an industry that had never had a positive influence before and opened the Foster Photoplay Company.
The Foster Photoplay Company closed in 1913, despite its success it had in the past. Although Foster tried to revamp the production company, it became overshadowed by company’s that were introducing sound in the movie industry. Foster influenced many African Americans to break into the realm of film, and after his company diminished many others followed in his direction. Within a few years George Johnson opened the Lincoln Motion Picture Company; shortly afterward, other companies such as the Ebony Film Corp. started producing race films.