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.
“That reel shows that African-Americans have been involved in cinema from the beginning, and this whole time there has always been a cultural tension,” Combs told TheWrap. “So, in the exhibit we juxtaposed it with a neon art piece from Glenn Ligon that shows the double America. It really was the perfect metaphor for all of the things that we’re looking to do throughout the rest of the exhibition.”
Despite being 125 years old, “Something Good” was found in a surprisingly well-preserved state. But for many of the pre-WWII films found in vaults, collectors’ attics, and other odd places by Berger and Combs, that was far from the case. Many reels of “race films,” movies made by Black filmmakers for Black audiences, were severely damaged from poor storage. Others were in an even worse state, with only a handful of film strips or, in some cases, even just single, partially melted frames surviving through the decades.
For some of the films with enough surviving material the Academy Museum has painstakingly restored them to be showcased alongside the “Regeneration” exhibit. This includes “Reform School,” a 1939 drama starring Louise Beavers produced by race film studio Million Dollar Productions.
While Beavers was regularly cast in maid and slave roles in mainstream Hollywood films, “Reform School” gave her a chance to have a leading role as a progressive-minded probation officer who takes charge of a reform school for teens with criminal records and tries to undo the brutal system put in place by the previous superintendent.
“Reform School” came out a month before another film set at a school: “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” While that film joined other 1939 releases like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind” in the pantheon of all-time classics, “Reform School” was believed to have been lost until a copy was discovered deep in the Academy archives in 2020. In restoring it, Berger hopes “Reform School” and other race films get the respect they deserve, and that museum-goers will reflect on the cultural biases that lead to some films getting deemed worthy of preservation while others don’t.
“We believe that when film scholars teach about 1939, that famous year for Hollywood, they should be talking about movies like ‘Reform School’ alongside ‘Wizard of Oz,” Berger said. “As we were going through the Academy collections, I was so excited to see these posters but upset that I had never heard of these films, and it speaks to the parallel history in relation to racism in this country.”
“These films and industries may not be talked about in American history, but they existed, and bringing them back into the spotlight required both recovery and discovery,” added Combs. “When we found films like ‘Reform School’ in the Academy archives, a lot of them were assumed to have been lost but just weren’t tagged properly. Others were found in people’s homes or other facilities and had just languished there.”
When the film record for certain actors was scarce or nonexistent, Combs and Berger turned to other historical artifacts and to contemporary artwork to explore the past. Posters and other promotional material from pre-war race films is on display along with reviews in Black publications. A recreation of a Panoram, coin-operated projectors that played three-minute reels, is on display to showcase how the machine offered Black singers and dancers a way around the white-controlled music industry and find an audience.
But for all of the celebration of the forgotten ingenuity of early Black cinema, “Regeneration” doesn’t ignore the very real limitations placed on these performers. A contemporary art piece by Gary Simmons called “Balcony Seating Only” shows a black staircase with the word “colored” roughly painted in white, alluding to the racially segregated seating sections at cinemas in the Jim Crow era.
Another room in the exhibit features an excerpt from a Negro Digest column from Harlem Renaissance actor and political activist Paul Robeson discussing the limits put on Black actors in terms of what roles they can play. It’s an artifact Combs found to be extremely relevant to modern Hollywood amidst its ongoing diversity push.
“I remember, it felt so prescient, and yet still very contemporary, like a part of a current conversation but this is something that was decades old,” she said. “It spoke to that constant struggle even today that artists of color face to make themselves heard and which we are still talking about.”
The Academy Museum will hold a weekend-long festival for the “Regeneration” exhibit from Feb. 3-5 featuring pop-up food stands, screenings, panels, and live music performances. More info on the event can be found on the Academy website.