SHORT AND SWEET

Film scholars found the earliest known on-screen depiction of African-American love

Film scholars found the earliest known on-screen depiction of African-American love
Image: Screenshot via Vimeo/HMH Archive
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In 1898, when it wasn’t uncommon for minstrels to perpetuate racist stereotypes and for vaudeville shows to use blackface, a 29-second silent picture depicted a touching moment between two African-American lovers.

The restored film opens on a couple with lips locked in a kiss. The lovers pull back, smiling and swinging their arms, and then embrace and kiss again.

The film, called Something Good – Negro Kiss, is thought to be the earliest known depiction of African-American intimacy on screen in the US. Film scholars at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California recently uncovered the film and dated it to 1898, thanks in part to the distinctive camera used by the filmmaker, a former vaudeville performer.

This week, the silent film entered into the US Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, along with 24 other titles including The Shining, Brokeback Mountain, and Jurassic Park, which were selected for their importance in US film history.

The film shows a new side of how race was portrayed in early film, and it has moved creators today.

“There’s a performance there because they’re dancing with one another, but their kissing has an unmistakable sense of naturalness, pleasure, and amusement as well,” Allyson Nadia Field, one the historians who helped identify the film, told the University of Chicago. “It is really striking to me, as a historian who works on race and cinema, to think that this kind of artifact could have existed in 1898.”

A Twitter user who identifies himself in his profile as a lawyer in entertainment swiftly scored the 1898 film to the soundtrack of Barry Jenkins’s new movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, a tale of two young black lovers set in the 1970s. The Oscar-winning director was struck by the mashup between the newly discovered century-old picture and his own movie.