by Dave Rodriguez
It usually takes discoveries of blockbuster proportions for stories related to film preservation and restoration to have any traction in the manic, mainstream news cycle. Generally, only things like the excavation of original materials from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927) by Argentine archivists, or the restoration of the thought-to-be-lost Orson Welles project Too Much Johnson (1938), carry the high-profile cachet to excite audiences outside academic and cinephilic circles. But every so often, a small, precious film comes along that conveys something much more beautiful and enriching than the grand vision of a canonized auteur. Every so often we are offered not just something we’ve never seen before, but are confronted with a new way of seeing.
Such is the case with the recently restored Something Good — Negro Kiss, a 29-second film produced in 1898, a mere 3 years after the first public film exhibitions took place. Purchased as part of a bulk collection on eBay and delivered to archivist Dino Everett in a garbage bag, the 50-foot nitrate film strip was discovered almost entirely by chance, but ultimately saved through diligent archival work by Everett, film historian Allyson Field, and the collective efforts of the Orphan Film Symposium. The film, a “re-make” of Thomas Edison’s infamously scandalous The Kiss (1896), depicts something remarkable on celluloid in the era of Blackface minstrel shows and calcified racist tropes: an African American couple kissing, embracing, dancing–with a natural tenderness and intimacy miles away from how people of color were represented on the stage or screen at the time.
It’s difficult to not have an emotional reaction to the film. The moment captured feels effortless and loving, which is perhaps a testament to the two actors’ (Gertie Brown & Saint Suttle) talents. Even Oscar-winning director and FSU-alum Barry Jenkins was rendered speechless when a Twitter user set the work to music from his latest feature, If Beale Street Could Talk, another film with Black romance at its center. Research uncovered that Something Good was originally sold through the Sears catalog as a comedy, a fact highlighting its contemporary White audience’s “presumption that Black people on screen were inherently comedic,” Field explains. But watching today seems to imbue the film with another significance entirely. Despite original intentions, the brief vision of love and frivolity offered by Something Good defies its own context of production and gives the Black body on-screen something much more dire, something that we are in many ways still struggling for: its humanity.
In December 2018, the film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, ensuring its preservation and access for many future generations of viewers (and kissers).
Read more of Allyson Field’s commentary and about the story of Something Good — Negro Kiss in Lila MacLellan’s fantastic article in Quartzy.