Overlooked black actor may have been most prolific in early British cinema

Look up the actor Lucius Blake on IMDb and you’ll find just two official credits to his name. Google him, and his presence is practically nonexistent. But over the course of a 25-year career as a self-described “film artist” Blake appeared in more than 30 British films – making him possibly the most prolific black actor in early British cinema.

Now, Blake’s life and career have come to light after extensive research by a film historian who says the story of his erasure is far from unique.

“Lucius Blake is just one of the hundreds of people of colour who have been lost to British film history,” said Marc David Jacobs, who will be delivering a presentation on the subject at BFI Southbank on Monday in celebration of Black History Month.

Jacobs was watching the 1929 movie The American Prisoner when he first saw Blake in a substantial role and thought it might be the first credited part for a black actor in a British-made talkie.

When he began researching film archives, he discovered Blake was a jobbing artist who had appeared in dozens of films from 1928 to 1952. These included the silent version of Sweeney Todd in the 1920s, the first Hammer film in the 1930s, one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s most obscure productions in the 1940s, and Sidney Poitier’s second feature film in the 1950s.

One of the significant factors behind Blake’s invisibility, Jacobs said, was the neglect of early British sound films. The period is often remembered through the lens of a handful of well-known stars, rather than for its many rich ensemble casts.

“Where character actors of colour from later periods have benefited from the availability of their work, of the 25 films Blake is known to have appeared in between 1928 and 1938 – by far the most prolific part of his career – only four have ever been issued on DVD,” Jacobs said.

“An extraordinary film like King of the Damned (1936), in which Blake plays a key part alongside the then hugely popular Conrad Veidt, and which could have contributed to his earlier recognition, has largely languished in undeserved obscurity since last being shown on television in the early 1990s.”

Blake was born Elusha Ebenezer Blake in Jamaica in 1890. Working initially alongside his family as a coffee planter, he left for Pittsburgh, US at the age of 23, where he found work as a labourer, chauffeur, janitor, steelworker and mechanic.

He travelled on to the UK in the 1920s, where he made his film debut, seemingly with no previous acting experience. His personal life was equally fascinating, taking him from a sensational trial for his attempted murder to serving in his fifties as a stretcher-bearer during the London blitz.

“Blake also acted under at least two other names, J. Blake and Sam Blake, neither of which has yet to be connected to him in any contemporary film database,” Jacobs said.

“His obscurity has unsurprisingly led to his being mistaken for other black actors … he also has the misfortune of being missed out in modern cast lists for several films in which he received offscreen credit, including Old Bones of the River (1938), probably the biggest box office success in which he had a major role.”

Jacobs said Blake’s career should be seen in the wider context of other people of colour working in Britain in the first decade of talking films.

“While the problem is one shared by numerous character actors of the period (including white actors), actors of colour appeared predominantly in these smaller or more obscure roles, so their absence from most histories of the period is more keenly felt,” he said.

The historian highlighted character actors such as Kiyoshi Takase, a Japanese magician who appeared in British science-fiction blockbusters and musicals; and Eva Hudson, an African American singer who solved a murder mystery alongside James Mason in one of his first films.

Behind the camera, he said, there were also figures like Gordon Wong Wellesley, the Chinese-British author, director and producer who crafted four of Gracie Fields’s biggest successes, and who became “probably the first person of colour” nominated for a writing Oscar.

“The era of the earliest sound films made in Britain remains a substantially undiscovered country, about which benign myths and plain untruths remain largely dominant,” Jacobs said.

“One of its many perceived wisdoms is that it was a time when those both in front of and behind the cameras were uniformly white men. But, as a mixed-race person myself, I’m keenly aware that actors and creatives of colour have been present throughout practically the entire history of British film-making – as indeed were women, as well as members of other marginalised communities.”