It started with a kiss. Then film scholars found more.
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It started with a kiss. Then film scholars found more.
Wilmington 10 – USA 10,000. 1979. USA. Directed by Haile Gerima. [From left to right: Asghar Toutian, Haile Gerima, Ben Chavis, Shirikiana Aina, Larry Moten] Courtesy the filmmaker.

by Ben Kenigsberg

NEW YORK, NY.- Even in the 19th century, a film could have an extended cut.

One of the earliest titles screening in this year’s To Save and Project series, the Museum of Modern Art’s annual showcase of recent preservations, is an alternate version of “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” a film put out by the Selig Polyscope Co. in 1898.

“Something Good,” which archivist Dino Everett rediscovered in 2017 and scholar Allyson Nadia Field helped identify, shows two vaudeville performers clasping hands and kissing. The Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 2018 and noted that it “may represent the earliest example of African American intimacy onscreen.”

The version showing at MoMA, though, in a program of orphan films on Jan. 23, is a little bit longer, even if it still runs less than a minute at the speed being used. This time, the actors, Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, are on opposite sides of the screen, and Suttle pantomimes trying to win Brown’s favor before pulling her toward him for a kiss (which she initially rejects).

This rendition of “Something Good” was found in Norway, and the National Library of Norway has already put it online. But much of what is showing in To Save and Project, which runs Thursday through Feb. 6, isn’t so readily available. And while the program offers its usual sprawling range of revivals — like Erich von Stroheim’s “Blind Husbands” with recovered footage and another attempt to recapture the Cinerama experience, with “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” — this edition puts a spotlight on more than a century of Black cinema, with films as old as “Something Good” and as recent as Christopher Harris’ “still/here” (2001), an experimental feature that ponders deserted buildings in St. Louis.

The focus on Black cinema begins with the opening-night feature, “Wilmington 10 — USA 10,000,” a documentary from L.A. Rebellion director Haile Gerima. A scrawl of text at the beginning cites that very year, 1898, when African American residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, were massacred and dumped in the Cape Fear River by whites in an insurrection against Black leaders in local government.

How histories have recorded that event and how racial violence in general is memorialized — with recollections often passed down through families rather than written down in books — are among the many subjects addressed in the film, which is nominally centered on another instance of race-related injustice in Wilmington. The Wilmington 10 were civil rights activists wrongly convicted of involvement in the 1971 burning of a white-owned grocery store. But the case against them was tenuous, and the film, drawing on the arguments of their supporters at the time, maintains that the state elected to punish the 10 simply for engaging in activism. Amnesty International considered them political prisoners, and right in its title, “Wilmington 10 — USA 10,000” makes the case that they were hardly alone in the United States.

With a 1978 copyright, the film was shot before the sentences of the Wilmington 10 were overturned in 1980 and well before North Carolina’s governor pardoned the group in 2012. (The film was also made before another of its imprisoned subjects, Assata Shakur — convicted in the killing of a New Jersey state trooper — escaped in 1979.)

But the film is designed to be timeless. Its digressive structure keeps returning to the 10 but covers a lot of ground, interweaving their story with insights about racial injustice in education or in the unequal application of the death penalty, for instance. Gerima does not identify his interviewees, many not overtly connected to the Wilmington 10 case, until the end, a technique that gives their commentary a universal quality. The Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., one of the 10, and Gerima will participate in a conversation after Thursday’s screening.

Another politically charged work in the program is “The Killing Floor,” directed by actor Bill Duke. It was originally televised as part of the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1984 but was later featured in the Critics’ Week program at Cannes (under the title of “The Color of Blood”) and what is now the Sundance Film Festival. Its appearance at MoMA as a newly preserved work warrants an asterisk: The restoration was shown last year in virtual cinemas, and it is on the Criterion Channel.

Still, the righteous anger of Duke’s film could only pack that much more of wallop in a theater. Damien Leake stars as a Mississippi man who moves to Chicago during World War I and takes a job working for a meatpacking company. He becomes convinced of the benefits of joining the union, which needs more support from Black workers like him. But becoming a union member makes him a target from all sides. In this period before the National Labor Relations Act, his supervisor (Dennis Farina) can fire workers for union involvement. Another worker (Moses Gunn) takes a staunch anti-union stance, convinced that the union will never have the interests of Black workers at heart. And when Chicago erupts in racial violence in 1919, the racism of some union members comes to the surface. “The Killing Floor” is an exceptionally cleareyed film about the hard work of organizing.

To Save and Project is also showing two rare early works from the 1970s by celebrated African directors. In “The Young Girl,” also known as “Den Muso,” the first full-length feature from Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé, a factory worker who sees no possibility of advancement quits his job, then — in events that the film ambiguously does not connect to his departure — rapes a daughter of the factory owner. But she is mute from childhood meningitis and can’t vocalize her protests against the cruel fate demanded by her father, who believes she’s brought shame upon the family. (According to MoMA, the film was censored and led to “Cissé’s brief imprisonment on trumped-up charges.”) It is screening with “Suzanne Suzanne,” a documentary short from 1982 by James V. Hatch and Camille Billops about a mother and daughter still scarred by beatings from their paterfamilias.

On a much lighter note, “Badou Boy” is one of the latest titles to be restored as part of the World Cinema Project from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. At an hour, it’s either the feature debut or a very long short from Djibril Diop Mambéty (“Touki Bouki”). No matter what you call it, this is a slapstick chase film in which a hapless officer continually fails in his efforts to catch the bad boy of the title, a teenage delinquent who makes mischief across town. He urinates by a “urinating strictly forbidden” notice, raises hell in a horse-drawn cart in an impromptu spaghetti-Western parody and lies to another boy to take over his job at a bus for the day.

But that only describes the plot of this formally playful, extremely Godardian film, which opens with footage that shows its own making. Driven by a funkadelic score, it waggishly nods to the postcolonial politics of Senegal and France, as when a news broadcast announces that Senegalese troops have invaded the French Riviera after a walkout at the two nations’ “conference for the creation of an African species of luxury dogs.”

To Save and Project: through Feb. 6, Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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