In 1896, Thomas Edison produced The Kiss. One of the first films ever commercially screened, it adapts the then-popular musical The Widow Jones — or at least it adapts about twenty seconds of it, a kiss that happens in the very last scene. Two years later came the equally short but differently groundbreaking Something Good – Negro Kiss, a version of The Kiss starring black actors instead of white ones. Only now, thanks in part to the efforts of University of Southern California archivist Dino Everett and University of Chicago Cinema and Media Studies professor Allyson Nadia Field, has it received proper recognition as the first such kiss on film.
“To uncover the origins of Everett’s footage, Field relied on inventory and distribution catalogs, tracing the film to Chicago,” writes UChicago News‘ Jack Wang. “This was where William Selig —a vaudeville performer turned film producer — had shot it on his knockoff of a Lumière Cinématographe. That camera produced the telltale perforation marks which had tipped Everett off to the print’s age.”
With support from the Museum of Modern Art, writes Hyperallergic’s Jasmine Weber, “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.”
“What makes this film so remarkable is that if you look at films from this period that feature African-Americans, first of all, most of them are white actors in blackface,” says Field in the NPR segment above. “They are caricatures. They’re certainly racist. They feature racist tropes like watermelon-eating contests and things like that. The American screen was incredibly hostile to African-Americans for much of its history,” but Something Good — Negro Kiss “refutes those kind of caricatures and asserts an image of humanity and of love.”
That image has received quite a response on the internet as the clip has circulated in the week since its induction into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry alongside the likes of The Shining, Monterey Pop, Brokeback Mountain, The Lady from Shanghai, and Jurassic Park. One lawyer-slash-critic even brought this piece of early cinema together with a piece of current cinema, mashing it up with the score of Barry Jenkins’ just-released James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk. Selig, Suttle, and Brown must have known full well that they were making something new. But did they know they were also making history?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.