More than five years ago, as Rhea Combs and Doris Berger were in the planning stages of research for an exhibit on early Black cinema that would open at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences planned museum, they got word of a new discovery that would come to define the exhibit.
Archivists at USC and the University of Chicago went through boxes of silent film prints acquired from a collector in Louisiana and found a 30-second reel of two Black vaudeville performers, Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, dancing and kissing.
The reel, titled “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” was dated back to 1898, making it the earliest known kiss between Black performers put to film.
Combs and Berger knew as soon as they saw it that it was the perfect piece to open “Regeneration,” an exhibit that is now running at the Academy Museum through July 16. To them, it embodies the common thread that runs through all the cinematic works and artifacts on display: expressions of joy and artistry in the face of a society that discriminates against the people who make them.