Earliest African American on-screen kiss

Something Good – Negro Kiss is a short film from 1898 of a couple kissing and holding hands. It is believed to depict the earliest on-screen kiss involving African Americans and is known for departing from the prevalent and purely stereotypical presentation of racist caricature in popular culture at the time it was made. The film was a lost film until its rediscovery in 2017, and was added to the American National Film Registry in 2018.

Production

In Something Good, a well-dressed African American couple exchanges several kisses. Between kisses they hold and swing each other’s hands and laugh together. The chemistry in the performances is described as “palpable,” conveying an “unmistakable sense of naturalness, pleasure, and amusement.” A slightly longer version came to light in 2021; this version shows the couple before they embrace, and includes the “prelude before the kisses, with wooing, refusal and negotiation.”

When it was produced, it was likely presented with other shorts as a comedy vignette, a take-off on the 1896 film The KissSomething Good starred stage entertainers Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. Suttle was a composer for popular theater and Brown a vaudeville circuit actress. The two also performed as dance partners. They were part of a group known as The Rag-Time Four, who performed variations on the popular cakewalk dance. They may have been at the film studio to perform in a cakewalk vignette.

The film was made in Chicago by director and producer William Selig, a film pioneer, who also had prior experience with staged minstrel shows. He used his own version of a Lumière cinématographe camera to shoot Something Good. Selig distributed the Selig Polyscope Company film through the Sears & Roebuck mail order catalog.

Rediscovery

Something Good‘s nitrate film negative was rediscovered at an estate sale in Louisiana by an archivist from the University of Southern California in 2017. Reviewing the technical details of the film, catalogs and sales material, scholars at USC and the University of Chicago were able to identify the film’s production history. The USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive claims the copyright to the restored version of the film, which it published on Vimeo. A seconds longer version was rediscovered in the National Library of Norway in 2021, which includes the lead-up to the kisses. It is one of the oldest films in the National Library collection.

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