The actual history of cinema’s earliest days is a lengthy, complex story of achievement involving several people and processes, and one that often overlooks and undervalues the contributions of non-whites. Often that was Black people. It is therefore critical to recognize the pioneering work of historians like Donald Bogle, Thomas Cripps, Ed Guerrero, Paula Massood, and others who recovered and categorized these contributions, published between the 1970s and 1990s, as well as more recent literature that builds on an alternate, inclusive canon of lost films.
One such example is “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” the recently discovered 1898 silent film believed to be the earliest cinematic depiction of affection between an African American man and woman. Groundbreaking for its time, the well-dressed couple, on screen for about 30 seconds, appear in a joyous embrace, hugging and kissing, swinging wide their tightly grasped hands, and then kissing again.
Identification of the film and its historical significance was made by University of Chicago’s Dr. Allyson Nadia Field, a film scholar who specializes in the intersection between race and cinema. The author of “Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity” ((Duke University Press, 2015), Dr. Field was named a 2019 Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To uncover the film’s origins, Dr. Field relied on inventory and distribution catalogs.
“It caught my attention in January 2017 and not sooner because it had been considered lost,” Dr. Field said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It was a film we knew had been made, it was known by historians, it was in filmographies, but it was not like most films of that period.”
By that, she is referring to films that represent the egregious racism in early American cinema, like “Who Said Chicken” (1900), “Watermelon Eating Contest” (1903), and many others, which “Something Good” was usually listed along with, because it was presumed that any African American representation on film of the period had to be ridicule or caricature.
“I knew that the film had existed and had been made, but I didn’t know anything about it,” Dr. Field said. “Nobody had written about it in any kind of detail. All we knew from catalog information is that a film by William Selig called ‘Something Good — Negro Kiss’ had been made and circulated in the late 19th century, early 20th century.”
For the first time, Dr. Field chronicled, in exhaustive detail, the process of discovery and ascribing historical meaning to the film, in an academic paper published in Film History: An International Journal, in September. Titled “Archival Rediscovery and the Production of History: Solving the Mystery of ‘Something Good—Negro Kiss’ (1898),” at 33 pages long, Dr. Field’s scholarship reveals a painstaking process right down to an explanation of the film print’s frame perforations.
On January 6, 2017, Field received an email from Dino Everett, film archivist at the University of Southern California, who she knew as an advocate for orphaned and educational films. The email came with frame grabs of a nitrate print that Everett found while looking through films he had acquired from a Louisiana collector nearly three years earlier, for examples of nitrate to show his students.
“He said, ‘It’s unlike anything I’d seen before. Do you think it’s important?,'” Dr. Field said. “He even thought it looked like a home movie before the term existed. There seemed to be something a lot more intimate and having more to do with self-presentation. And that’s unlike anything I had seen from that period when all moving picture images of African Americans were through a white lens and are distortions, misrepresentations, or pseudo anthropological. And this is none of that. The hardest thing was to figure out the performers and to learn about their lives.”
With help from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Field identified the performers as vaudevillians Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. “Something Good” belonged to what she called “a mini cycle of films” presumed lost, like the fewer than 20 percent of American films made during the silent era that survive in complete form, according to the National Film Preservation Board.
Additionally, per Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, film archivists have estimated that half of all American films made before 1950 are lost, presumably for good, when nitrate was replaced by safer acetate base stock. These stats are not separated by factors like race, gender, or theme, so there aren’t any specific patterns or trends to associate with them. Still, it’s not farfetched to say that the “lost films” problem likely affected Black films — or “race films,” as they were called during the early half of the 20th century — most often.
Undoubtedly, most losses are the result of deterioration, fire, and general neglect. But some were due to deliberate interference in order to suppress for any number of reasons, whether political or financial. Fortunately, every now and then, a film long believed to be lost, like “Something Good,” resurfaces.
Perhaps no figure merits more entry into this growing field of inquiry than the prolific Oscar Micheaux, a pioneer in Black American cinema beginning with his 1919 feature debut, “The Homesteader,” the first feature film written and directed by an African American. Micheaux produced and directed roughly 44 films at a time when Black people were still considered undeserving of any humanity. Subsequently, their contributions to cinema had little perceived value.
Sadly, several of his films are presumed lost, including “The Homesteader,” “The Brute” (1920), “The Gunsaulus Mystery” (1921), “Birthright” (1924), “The House Behind the Cedars” (1924), “The Conjure Woman” (1926), “The Spider’s Web” (1927), and “The Wages of Sin” (1928), to name a few.
Unquestionably, in addition to the loss of material items is, more importantly, the loss of immense innovative cinematic achievement, some little seen or even heard of, as in Micheaux’s case. But this certainly didn’t begin with Micheaux.
As Dr. Field notes with the discovery of “Something Good,” before Micheaux, “what people don’t realize is that with the pioneers of Black film, their films didn’t survive and so we don’t talk about them, which is unfortunate because there’s a lot of history that can be unearthed. Rediscoveries of nineteenth-century film artifacts are indeed rare, and there is still more to be understood about cinema’s early years and the culture it emerged into and, ultimately, transformed.”
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, among the first filmed depictions of Black people were a series of anthropological short pieces from Edison Kinetoscope beginning in 1894. Several similar vignettes, like “Something Good,” followed. And as Hollywood took shape in the early half of the 20th century, Black creatives were already beginning to push back on relenting stereotypes. From the “uplift” films of the 1910s, produced via initiatives at notable Black educational institutes at Tuskegee and Hampton, to the documentary shorts made by William Foster, and the work of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company — the first Black-owned film production enterprise in the U.S. — there are several examples.
The 1920s through the ’40s saw a significant concentration of work by Black filmmakers with Black casts. After Micheaux — specifically 1937-1940 — more than 50 Black films were produced by film companies owned or co-owned by Black entrepreneurs like Million Dollar Productions of which actor, director and producer Ralph Cooper (AKA Dark Gable and Bronze Bogart) was a partner. They eschewed aesthetics of earlier Black films typical in Hollywood fare, with the intent to not only challenge, but also appeal to the mainstream on their own terms. Many of those films are now presumed lost.
Later, films like “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” and “Ganja and Hess,” both released in 1973, were, for all intents and purposes, suppressed. “Spook’s” message of Black liberation by any means necessary was apparently too incendiary for its time. And Bill Gunn, as writer and director, delivering a rebellious “Ganja and Hess” that subverted the vampire sub-genre, wasn’t at all the blaxploitation movie its white producers expected.
Both films were “rediscovered” decades later, restored and re-released with some fanfare. The same goes for Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground” and Horace Jenkins’ “Cane River,” each made in 1982, never released, until “rediscovery” more than 30 years later. Collectively, these discoveries raise some questions: what does it mean for a film to be lost? Is a film truly lost if it’s known, but a print simply can’t be traced, not only lost from viewing, but also from historical record?
In the case of “Something Good,” Everett’s print demanded answers to what the film was as a seemingly uncaricatured depiction of Black people from a period known for exactly that kind of representation. Identifying the film was an incredible opportunity for Dr. Field to solve an archival mystery that would go on to capture the country’s imagination.
“I think what really draws people to this film is the way it seems to be so unstaged, that they are not performing,” she said. “And so I think that there’s something in that candor and that intimacy and that joy. What I think is really interesting now that we know so much about it, having done all this research, is that it absolutely was staged. The performance itself is one that is also kind of impromptu, and at the same time, they’re professionals, they’re actors. And you get a glimpse of a humanity behind that.”
While the film was officially called “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” it was also promoted under different titles, according to Dr. Field. It was a time when titles weren’t as important as subject matter.
“The title is really indicating what the film is, so sometimes it was marketed as just ‘Negro Kiss’ or ‘Kissing Scene,’ but its formal title was something to be broadcast,” she said. “And in the catalog descriptions, it references it as a burlesque on the May Irwin ‘Kiss’. And so it’s very clearly made as a kind of parody of that.”
“The May Irwin Kiss,” also known as “The Kiss,” featuring Irwin and John Rice, is an 1896 film less than 20 seconds long, that provided a roadmap for Field’s investigation.
As for why the title “Something Good,” Field can only hypothesize. “I think it really is more a signal to exhibitors that this is not tawdry kissing, that it’s ‘high class’ entertainment, and points to the seriality of these films as short films shown in a succession of other films,” she said. “And so the idea that this would be ‘something good’ and ‘Negro kiss’ is very straightforward about the subject. I think it’s really signaling that this is unlike other things on the market.”
The footage is now part of an ongoing conversation around a rethinking of early film history. Memory of a film is just as important as the film itself. To maintain the existence of these lost films, it is therefore necessary that the continued investigation into their whereabouts be ensured. Having access to and interrogating extant expository documents where copies of the film unfortunately are not available, is one path.
“At the very least, this is a process that has allowed Suttle and Brown’s audience to grow to the millions, 120 years after they first kissed before the motion-picture camera,” Dr. Field said.
There are several other films from the collection Everett pulled “Something Good” from that Dr. Field is still in the process of identifying, so there could be more revelations like it on the horizon. She’s currently penning a companion piece that will be published in Discourse in the spring of 2022, which will serve as a folow-up analysis to the procedural.
Dr. Field is also writing a book that will be much more in depth. It’s an investigation into the film’s many afterlives that include, most curiously, a 2020 reinmagining by experimental African America filmmakers Kevin Jerome Everson and Kahlil Pedizisai, titled “Glenville.”
“The book is really interested in what this film meant in 1898 versus what it means now, and the long arc of the history of contemporary artists and filmmakers that have turned back to early cinema and, I think a larger trend in contemporary experimental Black cinema, where you have Black artists like RaMell Ross, Garrett Bradley and Kevin in a lot of his work, looking at early Black film in this larger context as something to reckon with during a very violent history in American film,” Dr. Field said.
“Something Good — Negro Kiss” now sits comfortably in the collection at the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for films that are deemed culturally significant, alongside other films mentioned here, from some of Micheaux’s presumed to be lost works (unearthed by Kino Lorber and released in the 2015 one-of-a-kind collection, “Pioneers of African American Cinema”) to Collins’ “Losing Ground.” Discoveries like this indicate that films, once thought lost forever, might exist in the collections of archives and private citizens, and can later resurface. They are therefore instead simply misplaced, awaiting rediscovery.
“I think it’s an imperative when we think about Black film, and the need to account for these films, because no one’s going to champion them otherwise,” Dr. Field said. “I’m finding more, the more I research, and that’s exciting. But it’s hard to get people excited about lost film. It’s tricky. African American cinema is being written from a place of absence. And so my work is really interested in how we account for that beyond creating lists of films that we know were made, but we can’t see. And I hope that this case can serve as a model for scholar–archivist collaboration.”