The story behind the first depiction of African-American love on screen

A screen shot from "Something Good," a silent film from 1898

The earliest surviving film to depict African-American actors in an intimate moment made its online debut to modern audiences last month—on social media, of course. Viewers found the 29-second silent film, Something Good — Negro Kiss, made in 1898, deeply moving.

“The restored film opens on a couple with lips locked in a kiss,” Quartz’s Ashley Rodriguez wrote, describing the short piece. “The lovers pull back, smiling and swinging their arms, and then embrace and kiss again.”

Because of its historical significance, the film was added to the US Library of Congress National Film Registry on Dec. 12. Then, a few days later, a Twitter user set the film to music from If Beale Street Could Talk, a movie released in December about a black couple in 1970s Harlem, by director Barry Jenkins. That tribute went viral. Even Jenkins, who also directed the Oscar-winning Moonlight, was rendered speechless.

It seemed like a happy ending for the cultural artifact, but the feelings the film has generated are complicated, says Allyson Field, a University of Chicago professor of film studies and one of the scholars who researched Something Good. The full story behind the work, and what’s known of its history, is dramatic and bittersweet.

A hidden jewel for sale on eBay

Something Good’s second life began in 2014, when Dino Everett, a film archivist at University of Southern California, bought a collection of vintage films for sale on eBay. At the time, he wasn’t looking for anything as fantastic and significant as Something Good. He was merely drawn to an image in the listing that led him to believe an early Thomas Edison film might be in the mix. So he sent $45.82 to someone named “Sheisolderthanme,” he explained to an audience at the Orphan Films symposium in New York last spring. Sheisoldethanme claimed that the films belonged to the estate of a collector in Louisiana, but the grouping was so random that Everett says he doubts they belonged to one person.

His eBay purchase eventually arrived in a garbage bag, with most of the reels in bad shape, so he put them aside for awhile. One day, thinking he could use a few in a class lecture about early cinema’s nitrate film stock, he took a second look. That’s when he came across this 50-foot film, almost entirely complete, featuring the striking moment. He sent a frame grab to Field, who specializes in African-American film and its history.

“Is this important?” he asked.

There was only one event that would have prevented Field from answering that message immediately, she says, and it happened: She was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter the day his email arrived. “Thankfully, he nagged me again and I was like, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe I missed this,’” she says.

Yes, this was important, she told Everett. In fact, she’d never seen anything like it. They began working together to track down the film’s maker.

How “The Kiss” was cloned

It would have been basically impossible for either one of the scholars to have identified this film without the other’s expertise, says Field. “Films then weren’t packaged the way they are now, with titles or a list of the cast. There was nothing, no information on it. Every process took a lot of detective work,” she recalls, “which was a lot of fun.”

Both scholars immediately recognized their mystery film as a knock-off of what was once the most famous movie in entertainment, an 1896 film called The Kiss, directed by Edison. That work, one of the first films to be projected publicly, and thought to be the first to portray a couple flirting and kissing on film, had electrified and scandalized audiences in what has been called “the first act of collective voyeurism.” It was such a moneymaker that it was cloned repeatedly, with several directors adding their own flourishes or comedic spins.

Knowing this much was a decent place to start, but it wasn’t much, since copycats of The Kiss were ubiquitous. However, Everett also recognized the rounded “perfs,” or perforation marks on the side of their film, which told him it was made by William Selig, of Chicago. Selig was the only American producer who had made his own version of the French Lumière brothers’ projector, which left the same telltale circular marks.

Field began studying Selig’s catalog and inventory listings. Handily, Selig sold his films through the Sears catalog, and Field already lived in the city where Sears launched his empire. Eventually, through a process of elimination, she determined that the unnamed movie was likely called Something Good – Negro Kiss, which was dated to, or before, 1900.

Next, the pair turned to identifying the performers, whose costumes made it obvious to Field that they were minstrels, she told the Orphan Symposium crowd. Here, the professors teamed with an expert at the Museum of Modern Art who, through facial recognition technology, discovered that the man in the movie was Saint Suttle, a performer whose digitized photograph was on file at Duke University.

This was a breakthrough. The researchers learned that Suttle belonged to a vaudeville group called the Rag-Time Four, and in images of that group, they found the woman in the movie, Gertie Brown. Both Suttle and Brown were vaudeville performers who specialized in the cakewalk, a dance commonly performed on stage and in films of the time, with black or white performers, both often in blackface.

After examining shipping lists and other records, Field was able to determine that Suttle and Brown had been in Chicago together in 1898. Field assumed that Something Good was made that summer, while the performers were in Selig’s studio for a cakewalk film, a theory she shared with the Orphan Films crowd.

“After the Orphan Films Symposium, I got an email from a film scholar in Europe who is named, and I’m not making this up, Dr. Kiss,” she tells Quartzy. (His full name is Robert J. Kiss.) “He had found a unidentified cakewalk film, and he sent me some frame grabs from it. And, sure enough, it’s our people.”

Selig must have already been working with the two actors in his studio when he asked them to parody The Kiss in an impromptu moment.

It’s unclear how much acting was involved. “At the time, he [Suttle] was married to someone else, but we don’t know what the actual nature of their relationship was,” Field explains in an email to Quartzy.

“One way of understanding the chemistry between Suttle and Brown is perhaps seeing her coyness and their humor as reflecting a kind of illicitness that possibly comes from their not being romantically involved—a kind of sanctioned transgression.” This is all speculation, she adds.

Of course it’s also possible that the actors were not as comfortable as they look in the moment. But knowing that they were professional performers in a professional studio, and noting “a sense of ease and collaboration to the way they interact with the offscreen camera operator,” leads Field to believe it was not a forced performance, either, she writes. Despite the power dynamics and norms that put them in Selig’s studio that year, “their comfort with one another and their laughter suggest full and willing participation,” she says.

To date, she hasn’t located any of Suttle or Brown’s descendants, but she’s hoping the publicity will lead to a connection.

Multiple layers of racial coding

Something Good, for all its tenderness and sincerity, was sold as a comedy, says Field. “It was really framed and marketed as a comedy because of the presumption that black people on screen were inherently comedic,” she says.

But the racial coding in the movie is “complex and multilayered,” she adds. The Kiss, the original, starred a white actress named May Irwin, and was inspired by a popular musical comedy for the stage, also starring Irwin, in which she kissed the actor John Rice. Thomas Edison had seen the play and promptly turned its pivotal moment into a movie, hiring the same stage actors for his project.

As Fields noted at the film symposium, that musical comedy was itself a burlesque on an earlier play that had featured an actress of Mediterranean ancestry. Her ethnicity had made the stage kissing, then considered lewd, permissible, not only for her, says Field, but by extension for the white actress who would imitate her.

There’s no apparent hint of comedy in Suttle and Brown’s version. To Field, that’s what makes this moment so unusual and compelling. At the time, films were only about 30 seconds long, so several would be shown in one evening, or between acts of live music or dancing. Something Good played following and before films that dehumanized black characters and reduced them to stereotypes.

“Even if people are presenting this film as something that would be an object of ridicule, the experience of watching it really resists all of that,” she says. “That image of black humanity really comes through despite all of that, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful.”

To be clear, this film does not make Selig a hero or suggest he was intentionally creating a non-racist message. His descriptions of Something Good used racist tropes that were common in his day, if not quite as offensive as others, says Field. His intentions are unknowable, but he had worked with minstrels for years and had co-owned two vaudeville companies before going into films, so he was “plugged into that world,” says Field. One of his business partners was an African American barber from San Francisco. Selig had also launched the careers of George Walker and Bert Williams, two African American men who became the era’s most famous minstrel stars.

Still, says Field, “I think Selig shows a level of respect to the performers that other filmmakers didn’t have.”

Selig, by the way, would go on to become the first filmmaker to take moving-making to Los Angeles. He moved there in 1909, lured by the promise of consistently fine weather, which made outdoor shooting that much easier. His company eventually closed shop, facing unbeatable competition from studios making feature-length films.

What’s happened since

Field doesn’t know when African American love appeared on film in the years following Something Good’s release. There were a few mainstream films that were less aggressively racist, and that did portray African Americans in a positive light, Field explains, but she has found no record of anything like the restored film’s sweet moment.

The next reference she can find to an intimate moment that’s not hyper-sexualized is in 1945, when Vincente Minnelli makes The Clock, starring Judy Garland. In that film, a final scene of couples saying goodbye to each other as the husbands marched off to the war includes an African-American couple that also kiss farewell. It’s nothing but a little peck, says Field, but that was enough to warrant headlines in a black newspaper.

In the 1910s, and especially following the horribly racist film Birth of a Nation, a small community of African American filmmakers and institutions began making films that would refute racist caricatures, says Field, who also wrote Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film & The Possibility of Black Modernity (Duke University Press, 2015). But those films have been lost to history, she says.

For the African Americans who saw Something Good—and there’s evidence to suggest it was shown to black audiences—it must have been an extraordinary moment, she imagines, “not just inspiring, but affirming, given how hostile the American screen was to African Americans.”

Watching the very human public responses to Something Good now feels to her like a good indicator of how the film was received then. For a scholar who is used to speaking to other film enthusiasts, the attention has been exciting—actresses like Viola Davis and Tracee Ellis Ross posted responses to the film—but the celebration is not without a sombre grounding in the realization that part of the reason this film is so newsworthy is because it’s so rare. “And it almost didn’t survive, you know?” says Field.

“We think about what else could have been,” she says, “What else is out there? What’s been overshadowed? What impact could it have had?”

She saw one person comment that she’d been watching the film on a loop and crying, “because they seem so happy and I feel so angry.” That person wondered what people did with Suttle and Brown’s happiness 100 years ago.

 

Instagram Photo

“What was electric for me about it was the through line, the connectivity,” Barry Jenkins told a reporter who asked him about the 30-second treasure. “We always talk about generational trauma, but what about generational joy? Generational love? That’s what I found in the video.”

The list of films added to the National Film Registry on December 12th includes more famous titles such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), Jurassic Park (1993), Cinderella (1950) and The Shining (1980.) Something Good lands at the bottom, only because the list was organized alphabetically, yet that placement seems fitting for this film’s invincible spirit.





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