Film History Essentials: “Something Good — Negro Kiss” (1898)

What it’s about:

A man and woman embrace and kiss several times, parting briefly to smile and laugh at each other and the camera, flirting affectionately as they clasp hands.

Why it’s essential:

Films in the 1890s that featured black performers often had titles like Chicken Thieves and Watermelon Contest, or even included racial slurs. Depictions of black life did not always include black performers, either, as film drew on the popular American stage traditions of blackface minstrelsy. If there were any African American filmmakers working in the 19th century, their works have so far not been identified. Oscar Micheaux, generally regarded as the earliest black filmmaker, began his career in motion pictures near the end of the 1910s.

Inevitably, then, almost every known American film from the first few decades of cinema was made by a white filmmaker for a predominantly white audience, who largely regarded black citizens with condescension when not with outright contempt or hostility. It is hardly surprising, then, that even ostensibly “benign” depictions of black characters in film were based almost entirely on stereotypes that played to the prejudices of a white audience. And that’s why Something Good — Negro Kiss is such an incredible discovery.

In 2014, Dino Everett, a film archivist at the University of Southern California, purchased some old nitrate films from a Louisiana collector. Nearly three years later, as he looked through them, he discovered one that prompted him to contact Dr. Allyson Nadia Field, a film scholar at the University of Chicago. It was, as he told her, “unlike anything [he’d] seen before.” She concurred, describing how the film was made in a “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” (as quoted by Tambay Obenson for IndieWire, 2021).

As Field would later document extensively in an article for Film History, what followed was the painstaking process of identifying the film and the performers who appeared in it. The discovery, believed to be the earliest film of its kind, created something of a sensation when it was announced, even outside of the world of film scholarship. A popular version (that is quite lovely) incorporated the track “Agape” from the soundtrack of If Beale Street Could Talk. The film was nominated to the National Film Registry soon after the discovery was announced, and was added in 2018.

Something Good — Negro Kiss was produced by Chicago-based filmmaker William Selig (see right), and stars Chicago vaudevillians Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. It was likely intended as a good-natured parody of Edison’s 1896 The Kiss, which was among the most famous and widely-seen films of its time, and would still have been in circulation even two years later. However, in 2021, a longer and somewhat different alternative version, that had been misidentified as a Lumière film, was discovered in Norway. The confusion was a result of the distinctive perforations on the side of the film, which were the same as those found on Lumière films. That particular perforation pattern happened to be used by this American film for an interesting reason.

William Selig, like Georges Méliès, was performing as a magician before he encountered motion pictures for the first time. After seeing a kinetoscope demonstration at the Texas State Fair, he returned to Chicago and, in search of an apparatus that wouldn’t fall afoul of Edison’s patented technology, happened to find someone who had built a spare Lumière cinematographe for one of the brothers’ traveling camera operators. The man was able to use the same plans to make Selig a camera and projector, which he named the “Polyscope.” That was why Selig’s films resembled a European rather than an American product. This was the clue that ultimately led Field to identify the film, as well.

Why you should see it:

The alternative version of Something Good — Negro Kiss is about twice as long as this version, and is shot so that the couple’s full bodies appear in the frame. The negative is also reversed, though whether intentionally or accidentally is unclear. In that version, the woman repeatedly rejects the man’s advances before finally succumbing to his embrace. The result feels much more like a stage performance. In contrast, this version has such a feeling of natural intimacy and chemistry between the two that Everett initially believed it might be a proto-“home movie” rather than something filmed for exhibition.

Saint Sutton and Gertie Brown (born Gilberta Gertrude Chevalier, which is a fantastic name) were two members of “The Rag-Time Four” alongside John and Maud Brewster (see left). Sutton was a composer as well as an entertainer, and the four were a dancing and singing group, best known for their version of the cakewalk. This dance has a fascinating history, originating before the end of slavery. Some accounts suggest that the dance began as an exaggerated parody of the more formal dances that were popular among white slaveholders of the time. Based on old footage of these dances, the theory is at least plausible.

Brown remained in the Chicago theater scene until her marriage in 1915 to comedian Tim Moore. The couple toured extensively for many years before finding some success on Broadway in the late 1920s. Brown died of pneumonia in 1932, aged 54, and Sutton, whose career in the interim is not as well documented, passed away two years later.

Their 1898 film together notwithstanding, of course both frequently participated in the kinds of stereotypical acts and roles that were expected from every black performer who wanted to maintain a career in show business. Moore later went on to national fame playing the immensely popular character of The Kingfish, a scheming, small-time grifter, in the early-1950s television sitcom adaptation of Amos ‘n’ Andy, one of the most successful radio shows of the 1930s and ’40s. (And one which, incidentally, had previously featured an all-white cast voicing the all-black roster of characters.)

In any case, almost nothing seems to be known about the circumstances that led to the making of Something Good — Negro Kiss. Perhaps Sutton and Brown were originally there to film a cakewalk, and that film is now lost, or perhaps a new version of The Kiss was always the plan. However it came to be, white audiences likely viewed it purely as comedy, as with virtually all films that included black people. Nevertheless, the result feels like a tantalizing, all-too-brief glimpse into an alternate world of black entertainment that we are otherwise forced to imagine and reconstruct from less vivid sources.

As with many early filmmakers, nearly 95% of Selig’s 20+ years of films are considered lost. The possibility that more motion pictures like this may have once existed (and certainly could have existed) is a loss that feels all the more keen when all of the other surviving depictions of African Americans appear through such a warped racial lens. Whenever any 19th-century film suddenly surfaces from an unexpected source, it is an incredible find. This, an anomaly that is perhaps the most charming and beautiful pre-1900 American film we have, is a gift.


~ by Jared on March 29, 2023.

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