She was a woman of many hats. Some came across her as a teacher while those in the civic space saw her as an activist. But she is celebrated the most in the movie industry where she left her mark as a filmmaker, director, producer and author.
Maria Thurston Williams was the first African-American woman film producer. She discharged this role diligently and produced a five-reel crime series titled “Flames of Wrath”.
It comprised murder, theft and criminal investigations offering movie lovers suspense and setting them on the edge, according to Baton Rouge Proud. If Flames of Wrath was cast in the 21st century, it would qualify for any of the blockbuster crime series in today’s movie box office.
She had a love for writing and this took her into the media landscape. She became editor-in-chief of a weekly newspaper, Kansas City weekly New Era from 1891 to 1894. She later published her own newspaper known as Women’s Voice which highlighted issues concerning women that were underreported. It was funded by the women’s wing of the Republican Party.
Williams was born Maria Priscilla Thurston in 1866 and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Her affinity for writing was what sparked her interest in the film industry. She was a scriptwriter and an actor as well. She wrote her memoir titled “My Work and Public Sentiment” in 1916.
She was enthusiastic about activism and came across as an independent woman. She was a prominent member of the Good Citizens League where she picked up the role of speaker and organizer many a time. She was passionate about efforts geared toward reducing crime among African Americans.
Williams married Jesse L. Williams in 1916. He ran a movie theatre and owned businesses in Kansas City. Jesse L. Williams co-managed the movie theatre with Williams which gave them the leverage to produce content for black audiences. They later established the Western Film Producing Co. and Booking Exchange. Williams went on to write the script for Flames of Wrath. She was actively involved in its production and was cast as the prosecuting attorney in the drama series.
This series made her the first Black woman to produce a film in 1923. She was hit with disaster when her husband died that same year.
Williams was mysteriously killed on January 3, 1932. She was shot by an unknown assailant on the side of the road, miles from her home. She had left home after a stranger had told her that her help was needed because the stranger’s brother was ill.
While her murder remains a cold case, historians say it ironically ties into the plot of her series “Flames of Wrath” in which prosecutors could not unravel the murder in a robbery case.