Black Cinema 1898-1971 Exhibition – The Hollywood Reporter

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, the second major temporary exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opens August 21, is a nuanced exploration of how black filmmakers and performers have influenced, defined and expanded American films. The exhibition (which ran for five years) takes a comprehensive look at film history and black visual culture more broadly, highlighting notable items like the original costumes worn by Lena Horne in Stormy weather (1943) and Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy and Bess (1959), Nicholas Brothers tap shoes and one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets.

The show’s debut, 1898, marks the creation of “the first known moving picture sequence of African-American performers on the screen, [seen] with dignity,” says Doris Berger, Co-Curator and Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at the Academy Museum. The show ends with material from 1971, the dawn of the Blaxploitation subgenre, acknowledging the shift that took place when black film arts became available and embraced by mainstream audiences.

“We watch independent films as well as Hollywood, and we watch in front of and behind the camera,” says Rhea Combs, co-curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. She adds that the exhibition is anchored “with four thinkers: Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and WEB Du Bois, [and looks at] how these 19th century scholars understood the power of imagery and representation, and how this relay was passed on to independent filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s to further this charge.

According to Combs, the way African-American images have historically been portrayed informed the entire show, which includes photographs, scripts, posters, drawings, newsreels, and more.

The show provides a sociopolitical context for early experimental works like “race movies”, which were independent productions from the 1910s through the 1940s, made for black audiences and featuring all-black actors. And the “Stars and Icons” gallery, with more than 50 glamorous portraits on display, pays homage to black artists who were household names as well as those who never really crossed into the mainstream. “Even within the Hollywood film industry, there were so many people who had roles that were uncredited from the start,” Berger says.

“We recognize that Blackness isn’t a monolith. So there’s this idea of ​​really understanding that there were ecosystems of creative people that were feeding off of each other,” Combs explains. “And this idea of ​​regeneration in is one that I think we not only found inspiration in through a literal ‘racing movie’ title with that name, but also that idea of ​​creativity fueling other creative opportunities. That’s another reason why we integrate visual art with film art – to make sure we recognize that these are porous ideas and that people are inspired by a variety of different artistic pursuits.

To develop the contemporary elements of black film culture for the exhibition catalog in particular, the team interviewed filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins, Dawn Porter, Charles Burnett, Ava DuVernay and had conversations with descendants of notable actors (such as the grandson of Cab Calloway and Tony Nicholas, the son of one of the Nicholas Brothers), in an effort to make the continuum clear – an acknowledgment of how early films not only informed films of the 20th century, but also how they continue to inform the art being made today.

Courtesy of the Cinémathèque française

Another notable aspect of the show is its exploration of lesser-known film formats of yesteryear such as “soundies”, three-minute musical shorts that served as the precursor to the modern music video. “[They were] really important to black performers and musicians… they were shown in [panoram] machines in cafes, bars and taverns,” says Berger. “It was so exciting to see that long before MTV there were musical films that really provided a great opportunity for amazing African American talent to perform not just in nightclubs but also in movies – first short, then also long.”

The programming surrounding the exhibition (which runs until April 9) will be robust, in the form of a series of films programmed by Bernardo Rondeau, the museum’s senior director of film programs. Screenings begin August 25 with Reform the school (1939), a film thought to be lost in time, which was rediscovered through research. Starring Louise Beavers, it was restored in 2020 by the Academy Film Archive specifically for this exhibition, making it available to view after many decades. Screenings of around 20 more films will follow, all of which constitute a survey of the films explored in the exhibition itself, including Princess Tam Tam (1935), No Exit (1950) and The learning tree (1969).

The curatorial team also worked with the Los Angeles Department of Education and consulted with a scientific advisory board (including contemporary filmmakers such as Burnett, DuVernay and Shola Lynch as well as other scholars) to cultivate a program around movies, which will be fully expressed at a peak in February.

“We really want to open up film history to inspire conversations, good relationships, and hopefully joy and a sense of discovery of film history,” Berger says. “Sometimes that also means expanding the barrel. And that’s exactly what Regeneration try to do. We try to expand the canon of what is known about African American filmmakers and performance.

A version of this story first appeared in the August 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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