Love, in its purest form, makes all of our hearts smile. As a black person, I must say, that there’s something so special, so unequivocally sincere about seeing black people being in love on the big screen. Sorry, not sorry.
Here’s the thing: Unbeknownst to many, black love in film dates back to the beginning of cinema.
Commercial films were first screened in Paris in 1895. They were a minute or so long, silent, and in black and white. The medium came to the U.S., and we got our first representation of black love on screen back in 1898. This is just decades after the Civil War came to an end and enslaved men and women were freed.
The film is called Something Good—Negro Kiss.
Something Good is just over 20-seconds long, and features vaudeville actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown playfully flirting with each other. Like many films in the silent film era, it was so close to being forgotten. But Something Good was found, and donated to USC’s Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image archive.
Archivist Dino Everett received the donation—which came in a garbage bag (among several deteriorating films), that was packed inside of a cardboard box. “It was fairly shocking to find this print in as good a shape as it actually was given the fact that it seemingly lived alongside these other films that were deteriorating,” said Everett. A film of the 1890s, Something Good was on nitrate film stock, which is prone to decomposition.
Everett later reached out to and professor Allyson Nadia Field, associate professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, for help. Together they started a two-year investigation to discover the origins of Something Good—Negro Kiss. They figured out just how special the short film is.
“In Something Good—Negro Kiss, what makes it distinct from anything that was filmed at the time was we see this expression of joy and affection and intimacy between two African-Americans: Not white actors in blackface. Not black actors in blackface,” said Field.
Field says that during that silent film era, films with black people were full of racist tropes, like the 1896 film, Watermelon Contest. That is if there were any black people on screen, at all. In their detective work, Everett and Field also found that Something—Good Negro Kiss was made by a white producer for a mainstream audience. By it’s very nature Something Good—Negro Kiss counters some of the negative stereotypes of African-Americans portrayed in films, at that time.
Still, Field says that Something Good’s impact is bitter sweet.
“One commenter said something like You know we could have had this all along. And yet we get stuck with Birth of a Nation.” Field continued, “And you think about this 120 year hindsight we have now and thinking about the lens of all the trauma of the 20th century. I think it’s really quite bittersweet to think of it that way.”
Due to the work by Everett and Field, “Something Good—Negro Kiss” was added to the National Film Registry in 2018.
From the very first known black kiss on film, to the late 1990s, and the early aughts—an era that some would call a heyday of black films, black love has persisted. Still, in 2019, we understand black love to be revolutionary. Professor Racquel Gates focuses on African American media, specifically, race in popular film and television. She says that the concept of loving while black is a striking concept.
“I think absolutely black love is revolutionary. I think that if you’re talking outside of the realm of film and television the idea of black people being loved and loving each other and being treated as whole and valuable human beings who are deserving of love and care and affection is sadly still a fairly novel idea to many people,” said Dr. Gates.
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