On the the twelfth of December last year, a newly discovered silent film was announced to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Titled; “Something Good-Negro Kiss,” the William Selig silent film from 1898 is believed to be the earliest cinematic depiction of African-American affection.
The performance by cakewalk partners Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown is a reinterpretation of Thomas Edison’s “The Kiss” featuring May Irwin and John Rice.
The couple are on screen for less than 30 seconds. The man, dressed in a suit and bow-tie, and the woman in a frilled dress. They hug and kiss, swing wide their clasped hands, and kiss again. They’re happy.
The 29-second clip is free of stereotypes and racist caricatures, a stark contrast from the majority of black performances at the turn of the century. Thanks to scholars at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California, the footage is prompting a rethinking of early film history.
Now we’ve talked about the history of film before on this blog, particularly in my articles about the influence of Globalisation on the art-form and Propaganda. The great shame upon any aspiring film maker is that they stand upon the shoulders of monsters.
D. W Griffith’s influence on editing is undeniable, but his work glorifies the KKK. The same can be said for Walt Disney, whose black crows in Dumbo were a deliberate attempt to mock and demean black men.
So to see that a film like this exists, at this moment in history, it kind of reinvigorates my sense of humanity.
Human beings, despite a lot our flaws, are generally sympathetic creatures. So if you want to destroy an entire people, you must convince others that they are not people. That they are animals, savages, soulless monsters that would destroy you if given the chance. That’s what Racism and Xenophobia are all about.
In America and throughout the world, Black people were often depicted as apes in cartoons. Minstrel shows were popular a century or two ago, where white performers would paint their faces black and paint giant red lips on themselves to mock black people. Even black performers were forced to wear black face.
It’s only very recently that Black Face has become unacceptable irregardless of context. You couldn’t make Tropic Thunder today with Robert Downey Junior in black face, even though the film was satirising White washing. How they would rather get a popular white actor and paint his face black than get an actual black person to play that role.
I’m happy that this film exists for a number of reasons. Mainly because it will be a great addition to Black history in America, which I’m happy about because I really admire the black community and the culture they’ve developed.
When places like Ireland and India were being colonised the British tried to erode our identity so that we could be more easily controlled, but that backfired because we were in our own land. We knew who we were and their presence only made that sense of identity thrive. It gave us something to fight for.
In America, black people had a lot more problems. They were taken from their homes and forced to work on plantations. Robbed of culture, of history, of an identity. They struggled for centuries but eventually- inevitably- overcame.
To take all that pain, that suffering, that anger- where people tired to manipulate and break you down- and against all the odds, they forged something beautiful. They forged their own identity and developed one of the most influential cultures in the world.
Elvis developed his style from black Rock and Roll performers. As did Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Music, art and film- they made some of the greatest impact mankind has ever seen.
That impact matters because it humanises people. That’s all representation really is, an extension of empathy.
I remember when I was a kid I would wake up on Saturday mornings, go down stairs and watch Reggie Yate’s kids show. He’d have this studio audience and he’d play these games, screen these cartoons, have that “Old man, Fat man, Batman” segment where he got someones dad to show up as Batman and do something funny. Then at the end of every episode he’d have this truck full of toys delivered to this kids house and they got all this free stuff. It was great.
Reggie’s career would eventually move on from Kids TV. Today he’s more known for his documentaries and podcasting. But to me and many others, his work on that show made the biggest impact.
I can imagine his presence had a big effect on kids across the UK who were from African or Caribbean families, who’d see someone on TV who looked like them- skin wise- and they’d think to themselves “Oh cool! I could do that!” which is a big deal if you live in a country where few people look like you.
I genuinely believe that watching Reggie as a kid made me a less racist person. I’m not perfect, sometimes I see people and have a certain reaction in my head but then I have to check myself- like why did I think that when I saw that person. I think it’s just exposure to garbage media that left this residue of prejudice on my psyche I have to check for now and again.
Like I said, I’m not perfect. But I’m better than a lot of other people, particularly the older people in Northern Ireland who grew up watching minstrel shows. Who referred to black soldiers from Britain during the Troubles as “banana munchers“, who give dirty looks to the Ghanan immigrants as they walk to work, who refer to Diane Abbott as a “bin lid” and laugh at grown men wearing black face mocking her.
Watching Reggie taught me that there were people that didn’t look like me and that was ok. Because we still had more in common than we had differences and anyone who tells you otherwise is a piece of shit. I learned that regardless of race, we’re all human, we all go through the same things.
If this film exists, hopefully others do too. I hope that when this film was originally screened to people at the end of the 19th Century, it made them pause. It made them think, to realise that maybe- just maybe- these people were just like you and me.