Recovering Black Love on Screen: Early Film and the Legacies of Racialized Performance

Allyson Nadia Field, The University of Chicago

In 2017, Dino Everrett, the film archivist at the University of Southern California discovered a c.1900 nitrate film print of an African American couple laughing and embracing repeatedly in a naturalistic and joyful manner—an incredible departure from the racist caricatures prevalent in early cinema. After some detective work, the film was identified as Something Good-Negro Kiss, made in Chicago in 1898 by William Selig with well-known vaudeville performers Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. The film was named to the National Film Registry in 2018 and received widespread attention, including from a number of high profile celebrities drawn to the film’s moving depiction of Black love that continues to resonate. This attention led to further rediscoveries of Black performance in early films, thought lost. Taken together, these early film artifacts require a radical rethinking of the relationships between race, performance, and the emergence of American Cinema. And they have much to tell us about the cinematic expression of African American affection and how it can serve as a powerful testament to Black humanity at a time of rampant misrepresentation.

Vaudeville performers Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown.
Allyson Field speaks Friday 21 at 12: 15PM in Franklin Hall 312

Allyson Nadia Field is author of Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Duke University Press, 2015) and co-editor of Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Duke University Press, 2019) and L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press, 2015). She is currently working on her next book, tentatively titled Minstrelsy-Vaudeville-Cinema: American Popular Culture and Racialized Performance in Early Film, for which she was named a 2019 Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Field is Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.

Love! I’m in Love! continues April 16 with Mireille Miller-Young, University of Southern California

Mireille Miller-Young Screening and Conversation Friday, April 17 | starts 4p.m. | IULMIA Screening Room, Wells Library LI048 (Free)

Mireille Miller-Young, PhD, is Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and the 2019–20 Advancing Equity Through Research Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. She researches and teaches about race, gender, and sexuality in US history, popular and film cultures, and the sex industries. 

Dr. Miller-Young’s book, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Duke University Press, 2014) was awarded the Sara A. Whaley Prize for Best Book on Women and Labor by the Natinal Women’s Studies Association and the John Hope Franklin Prize for Best Book by the American Studies Association. She has published in numerous anthologies, academic journals, and news outlets, and has been interviewed for various books, articles, radio programs, and documentaries.

Along with Constance Penley, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, and Tristan Taormino, Miller-Young is an editor of The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure. She is also lead editor and contributor to the recent volume Black Sexual Economies: Race and Sex in a Culture of Capital.

Dr. Miller-Young is scheduled to discuss Love/Hate, a program of films on sexuality, gender, race and affection in a selection of Kevin Jerome Everson’s films as well as examples from her research on pornography.

Love/Hate: Kevin Jerome Everson’s Coupling Films Friday, April 17 | starts 4 p.m. | IULMIA Screening Room, Wells Library LI048 (Free)

** This screening contains sexually explicit imagery. Mature audiences only. **

Pininic Free stillPicnic Free (2007-2020) is a film with found footage about a couple enjoying a beautiful day, long walks and a firearm, a blanket, food, sex and art. (11:36, b&w, color, silent)

Glenville (co-directed with Kahlil Pedizisai, 2020) is based on the 1898 film Something Good-Negro Kiss during a New Year’s Eve celebration in Cleveland, Ohio. (1:46, color)

Goddess (2019) is based on a stag film produced by American photographer Garry Winogrand and the corrupt police from Everson’s home county of Richland Ohio. (2:19, color, silent)

It Seems to Hang On (2015) is based on the true story of the serial killers Alton Coleman and Debra Brown, a young Black couple who cut a violent path beginning in the summer of 1984 through the American Midwest (Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin).

The dialogue spoken in the film is inspired by and based on lyrics from the American soul duo (and couple) Ashford and Simpson’s 1979 hit song “It Seems to Hang On”. The lyrics refer to a couple struggling to hang on or to be together through adversity. Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson’s strategy was to make a film about a desperate, violent but loving couple on the run from the law.

The film was shot in and around the city of Detroit, and area where Coleman and Brown committed several murders. Their crimes were horrific, and their victims were Black with the exception of one white woman, a murder that eventually led to Coleman’s conviction and execution. Alton Coleman was executed in 2002. Debra Brown is doing life in a prison in Indiana. Coleman was born in 1956 in Waukegan, Illinois near Wisconsin. Debra Brown was born in 1962 in Ohio. There is no current documentation on how they met.

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Dialogue from Everson’s It Seems to Hang on is drawn from the Ashford & Simpson song lyrics.

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