“The Speculative Archive: Early African American Cinema and Film Historiography”
While African Americans produced films starting around 1909, no prints or fragments survive prior to 1920. This cinematic absence—a lost decade—is a great challenge for Black visual historiography, but also offers an opportunity for a more flexible and imaginative reconstruction of Black filmmaking practices, something that a number of contemporary artists have taken advantage of. Through a focus on William Foster, a well-known yet elusive figure in American film history, this talk considers how a speculative archive can be mobilized not only to give form to what’s absent but also to create the visual material anew. With Foster, as with other early Black filmmakers whose work is lost or only survives in scant fragments, I’m interested in how what we can’t see informs what we do see—and what happens when we focus on these zones of absence. The speculative archive attempts to account for these absences, restoring their presence to film history and, in doing so, to enable them to speak to the concerns of Black filmic representation and authorship that extend to today.
“Something Good-Negro Kiss: Rediscovering Early Film, Reassessing Racialized Performance”
In 2017, 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.
Dr. Allyson Nadia Field is a scholar of African American cinema, her work combines archival research with concerns of film form, media theory, and broader cultural questions of representation across periods and practices. She is the author of Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film & the Possibility of Black Modernity (Duke University Press, 2015) and co-editor with Jan-Christopher Horak and Jacqueline Stewart of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press, 2015). She also served as a co-curator of the L.A. Rebellion Preservation Project of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. With Marsha Gordon, she is the co-editor ofScreening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Duke University Press, 2019). Her current book project is on African American film historiography, the challenge of evidence, and the “speculative archive.”