By Sara Patterson
Humanities scholar Allyson Nadia Field seeks to reimagine early cinema history by analyzing rare films, ephemera, and artifacts. In 2018, she assisted in identifying the actors, producer, and historical significance of “Something Good—Negro Kiss,” a 30-second long silent film from 1898 that is believed to be the earliest representation of Black affection on-screen.
The rediscovery of this short film has led to a radical reconsideration about race in early cinema. Inspired by “Something Good—Negro Kiss” to continue her research about the interrelation of minstrelsy, vaudeville, and early cinema, Field recently received the 2020 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. One of only 25 recipients in the humanities and social sciences for 2020, Field will obtain a $95,000 stipend and a $7,500 research budget to support her large-scale, multi-year research project to be conducted Newberry Library, which has a wealth of research archives on Chicago vaudeville houses and the city’s entertainment industry.
“In identifying and dating one of the earliest African American films, Ally has brought to our attention an extremely important slice of our cultural heritage and paved the way for further similar discoveries,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music.
At UChicago, the Department of Cinema and Media Studies has developed a reputation for being at the forefront of cinema research—first through the pioneering efforts of Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, and Yuri Tsivian, and now with a notable strength in race and cinema with the work of Field and her colleagues Jacqueline Stewart and Kara Keeling. “Chicago presents an ideal environment in which to do my research, perhaps the best in the world,” said Field, associate professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. “My work is particularly indebted to Jacqueline Stewart’s pioneering scholarship on African American film history and Black film spectatorship in Chicago.”
Field received her PhD in Comparative Literature at Harvard University, which fostered her multidisciplinary work across the humanities with an emphasis on African American Studies and Film Studies. When she was working through the Booker T. Washington Papers for a course with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Field discovered a passing reference to the Hampton Institute films. Fascinated by this mention, through archival research she uncovered the history of a robust filmmaking campaign—in which none of the films are known to survive—that culminated with an attempt to correct the racist representation of Black people in “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. That turned her interest to nonextant films, film archives, and restoring the history Americans have lost. That research resulted in her first book, Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (2015), which reconstructed a history of Black filmmaking and visual culture. The rediscovery of “Something Good—Negro Kiss” offers her the opportunity to reconsider this period of film history through a rare artifact.
“The discovery of the nitrate print of ‘Something Good—Negro Kiss,’ and being able to share this film with the world, has been incredibly moving,” Field said. “The film continues to affect people and has been shared on social media with comments from significant Hollywood figures such as Barry Jenkins, Viola Davis, and Janelle Monáe. I try to imagine the effect it had on audiences at the time.”
Through her proposed book “Minstrelsy-Vaudeville-Cinema: American Popular Culture and Racialized Performance in Early Film,” Field uses case studies of a series of racialized performances in early cinema to reveal moments of creative resistance to the prevalence of dehumanizing portrayals of African Americans. Her scholarship focuses on how minstrelsy—as a key form of that era’s popular culture—was pivotal in the emergence of American cinema.
“As history has been written, early American cinema’s treatment of African Americans has been seen as misrepresentation at best and racist caricature at worst,” Field said. “Without denying the prevalence of the harmful effects of racism and racist caricature, this project looks at re-discoveries that defy the stereotypes of race and that restore legibility, as well as aesthetic and political complexity, of racialized forms of performance such as minstrelsy.”
In 2018, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress added “Something Good—Negro Kiss” to its list of films that demonstrate enduring importance to American culture. “By tracing the racist tropes that undergirded the very beginnings of the film industry and pitching them against moments that refute these tropes, my scholarship contributes to ongoing, and sharply relevant, conversations about Black representation throughout contemporary media,” Field said.