Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
A recently discovered silent film capturing a 19th-century couple embracing, Something Good–Negro Kiss, has been identified as the earliest cinematic depiction of affection between a Black couple.
The pair dances and embraces one another warmly — an intimate moment that UChicago calls “free of stereotypes and racist caricatures, a stark contrast from the majority of black performances at the turn of the century.”
On December 12, the Library of Congress announced Something Good would join its National Film Registry as one of 25 films — including Disney’s 1950 animation Cinderella and Brokeback Mountain — chosen for their acute importance in American culture.
“It is really striking to me, as a historian who works on race and cinema, to think that this kind of artifact could have existed in 1898. It’s really a remarkable artifact and discovery,” says UChicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, an expert on African-American cinema.
Dino Everett, an archivist at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered the 19th-century nitrate print hidden within a batch of silent films originally owned by a Louisiana collector. The clip, shot on a counterfeit Lumière Cinématographe, contains perforation marks that indicate the film’s age. Everett explains, “I told students, ‘I think this is one of the most important films I’ve come across.’ But my expertise is not in African-American cinema. I didn’t know if something like this was already out there.”
He connected with Field, an expert on African-American cinema, who traced the film to Chicago through inventory and distribution catalogues. She discovered the film had been shot by William Selig, a pioneer in film production and former vaudeville performer. With support from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Field not only identified the filmmaker, but the performers: Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. Suttle is dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, while Brown dons an ornate dress — costumes that Field says were typical of minstrel performers.
Something Good is a restaging of Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896), one of the world’s earliest motion pictures, which was added to the National Film Registry nearly two decades ago. The Kiss featured actors John Rice and May Irwin — the latter of whom was a well-known minstrel performer. The recreation’s title, Something Good–Negro Kiss, is deliberately subverting the corrupt racism imbued in the history of American minstrelsy.
“This artifact helps us think more critically about the relationship between race and performance in early cinema,” Field tells UChicago. “It’s not a corrective to all the racialized misrepresentation, but it shows us that that’s not the only thing that was going on.”