Faculty spotlight: Allyson Nadia Field

January 16, 2019

Allyson Nadia Field is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and the College, and is also Director of Graduate Studies. Additionally, she serves as Interim Director of the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture. Field recently helped discover a silent film from 1898 that is thought to depict the earliest cinematic depiction of African-American affection. Field shared information about this discovery and its significance, along with information about current happenings at the Scherer Center and what projects she's taking on next.

Q. What initially sparked your interest in cinema?

A. I came to cinema and media studies from art tistory. There, as an undergraduate, I was interested in the politics of visual culture, particularly the ways it contributes to social inequities but also can be mobilized as a tool of resistance. 

Q. Your primary research interest is African American film, and your most recent research project involving the newly discovered silent film Something Good-Negro Kiss resulted in a pretty historic discovery. Can you describe the process you undertook in identifying the film and its performers?

A. In January 2017, Dino Everett, the film archivist at the University of Southern California, approached me to help him identify a very rare find: a near-complete c.1900 nitrate print in good condition featuring an African-American man and woman performing a kiss for the camera. Through a combination of material evidence from the print itself and the surviving paper trail of extrafilmic evidence, I became convinced that we were looking at Something Good-Negro Kiss, a film made by the Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago.

More detective work led to dating it as produced in 1898. We were able to identify the performers with the help of the Museum of Modern Art, who had created a database of Black performers for their project on Bert Williams—the most famous Black vaudeville performer of his day. Their use of analog facial recognition with this database led us to Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown and, sure enough, we discovered that they were in fact performing together in Chicago in 1898 as part of the “Rag-Time Four” (with John and Maud Brewer). This was a popular group, and had created a vogue for the “Cake Dance,” a variation on the minstrel Cake Walk. My hunch was that they were at Selig’s studio filming a Cake Walk film, and then made Something Good-Negro Kiss as a kind of impromptu parody of Edison’s famous John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss from 1896. Curiously, shortly after we premiered the restored 35mm print of Something Good-Negro Kiss, an archivist in Europe shared a surviving fragment of a Cake Walk film with the same performers and the same backdrop, so we were able to confirm the hunch about how the kiss film came to be made.

Q. Can you explain the significance of this film?

A. It’s an incredibly exciting rediscovery. At a basic level, it’s rare that a nitrate print from this era survives at all, especially in such good condition. But what’s so remarkable is its representation of Black figures. American cinema, especially in the silent era, frequently represented African-Americans in demeaning, racist caricatures. This film is radically different. I had never seen an early silent film depict Black subjects so naturalistically. It’s not racist caricature, not blackface performance, not comedic ridicule. These performers aren’t the butt of any joke or punch line. They give a strong impression of genuine affection, humor, and joy—they’re having fun! This is an all too rare filmic assertion of Black humanity, one that is almost unheard of in popular media of that time.

Q. How have people responded to this rediscovery? 

A. We nominated the film for inclusion in the National Film Registry, a list of films designated as culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant by the Librarian of Congress. When the 2018 list was announced in December, Something Good-Negro Kiss was on it! This recognition catapulted the film to national and international attention, and it has become the most talked about film on the list. A filmmaker set the film to the soundtrack to Berry Jenkin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and posted it on Twitter—on seeing it the same day that his film was released, Jenkins tweeted that he was “speechless." So it got even wider attention, and celebrities like Viola Davis, Tracee Ellis Ross, Janelle Monae, Lena Waithe, and others shared it, amplifying its impact.

Many people are simply struck by the joy and affection the couple exudes, or by the rarity of such an earnest display of Black humanity in early cinema. It’s been incredibly moving for me to see the kinds of responses it has solicited, from loving embrace to a prevailing bittersweet sentiment at witnessing this joy in 1898 from the vantage of 120 years of traumatic history. As one social media commentator said, “I’ve been crying watching that on loop. And I think it’s because they seem so happy and I feel so angry wondering what 1900 did with that happiness.” 

Q. You're also the Interim Director of UChicago's Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture. How does the Center act as a hub for all things arts- and culture-related across the University?

A. I feel really privileged to be serving as Interim Director of the Scherer Center in its 10th anniversary year. One of the things that I’ve most admired about the Center’s mission has been its commitment to the multidisciplinary study of American culture. This multidisciplinary lens engages the disciplinary moorings of the study of American cultures across the University’s schools and divisions, seeing cross-disciplinary dialogue as a powerful tool for approaching the challenges we face—as a university and as a nation. To this end, this year we have had public events around questions of free speech, the rise of white nationalism, disability and design, in addition to programs on specific historical and cultural touchstones in American history.

Q. What other projects are you currently working on and most excited about?

A. The rediscovery of Something Good-Negro Kiss has made me rethink much of what I’ve understood about early cinema and its relationship to traditions of minstrelsy and vaudeville. I’m currently teaching a graduate seminar entitled “Minstrelsy-Vaudeville-Cinema: Racialized Performance and American Popular Culture” that attempts to grapple with these forms and the afterlives of the peculiar cultural heritage of minstrelsy. Equally, I’ve been interested in the way that Black artists and filmmakers have worked to imaginatively create missing archives in their works. This builds off work that I’ve been doing on Black American independent cinema, especially the L.A. Rebellion project. And it has led to my new book project, which focuses on what I’m calling the “speculative archive” as a way to rethink the challenge of evidence, African-American film historiography, and the creative politics of film history.