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

6 18 119
12.01.2019

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.

A friend texted this to me.
I… Words fail me.

https://t.co/JZDODS85dy

— Barry Jenkins (@BarryJenkins) December 14, 2018

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........

© Quartz