The earliest surviving film to depict African-American actors in an intimate moment made its online debut to modern audiences last month—on social media, of course. Viewers found the 29-second silent film, Something Good — Negro Kiss, made in 1898, deeply moving.
“The restored film opens on a couple with lips locked in a kiss,” Quartz’s Ashley Rodriguez wrote, describing the short piece. “The lovers pull back, smiling and swinging their arms, and then embrace and kiss again.”
Because of its historical significance, the film was added to the US Library of Congress National Film Registry on Dec. 12. Then, a few days later, a Twitter user set the film to music from If Beale Street Could Talk, a movie released in December about a black couple in 1970s Harlem, by director Barry Jenkins. That tribute went viral. Even Jenkins, who also directed the Oscar-winning Moonlight, was rendered speechless.
It seemed like a happy ending for the cultural artifact, but the feelings the film has generated are complicated, says Allyson Field, a University of Chicago professor of film studies and one of the scholars who researched Something Good. The full story behind the work, and what’s known of its history, is dramatic and bittersweet.