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Library Of Congress Honors Groundbreaking 1898 Film Depicting Black Joy


A 29-second clip from 1898 will be added by the Library of Congress to its National Film Registry. In it, two black actors kiss and make history, performing what may be the first known on-screen kiss between two African-Americans. Allyson Nadia Field is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. She's the one who was able to decipher the scene and identify the actors themselves. And she joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.

ALLYSON NADIA FIELD: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how was this discovered?

FIELD: So my colleague at USC, Dino Everett, who's the archivist of moving image there, acquired the film in a collection from a collector in New Orleans. And he noticed that this was a very rare find in incredible condition for its age. And what's more, it featured two African-American performers kissing in a non-caricatured way. It was very natural. And it looked like nothing he'd ever seen before. And he sent it to me. And it looked like nothing I had seen before. And we started a lot of detective work to figure it out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Describe the clip for us.

FIELD: So it's a 50-foot film from 1898. And it features Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, two vaudeville and minstrel performers who were fairly well-known in Chicago at the time. And they begin kissing. And they playfully dance, separate, come back together for four kisses total through the whole film. And they laugh. And she sort of shyly shimmies coyly away from him, and he pulls her back in. And they have a lot of fun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. This is an era of segregation. And most depictions of African-Americans were racist. This is not that at all.

FIELD: What makes this film so remarkable is that if you look at films from this period that feature African-Americans, first of all, most of them are white actors in blackface. They are caricatures. They're certainly racist. They feature racist tropes like watermelon-eating contests and things like that. And the American screen was incredibly hostile to African-Americans for much of its history - and so to find a film like this that just refutes those kind of caricatures and asserts an image of humanity and of love.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know who made the film? And can you tell us a bit more about the actors themselves?

FIELD: So the film was made by William Selig, who was a Chicago-based owner of the Selig Polyscope Company, which was an early film company. And he had been a manager of minstrel shows. The performers were themselves - Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle were partners in a group called the Rag-time Four with John and Maud Brewer around 1898 and 1899. And they were largely responsible for craze and the cake dance, which was a variation of the popular cakewalks at the time. And I believe they were at Selig Studios filming a cakewalk film and then did this film as a kind of impromptu parody of the May Irwin kiss, which was the very famous kiss filmed in 1896 - one of the first films that was publicly exhibited, which featured a kiss between May Irwin and John Rice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this film is called "Something Good-Negro Kiss" (ph). And it's joining "Brokeback Mountain," "The Shining" and other really important films in the National Film Registry. What does it mean?

FIELD: Well, I think putting it amongst those films really signals that it's an important part of our cultural heritage. And now so many more people will see it and be moved by it. And we have, you know, no idea what other films are out there to be rediscovered. So hopefully, this will encourage new rediscoveries in early cinema.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Allyson Nadia Field. She and her colleague Dino Everett of the University of Southern California uncovered the first known on-screen kiss between two black actors. Thank you so much for joining us.

FIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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