For its second major exhibit them Academy Museum of Motion Pictures presents a look back at the performers of color who paved the way for today’s mega-stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson and Denzel Washington. Titled “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” it takes up the 11,000-square-foot Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, which in turn takes up the entire fourth floor of the former May Company on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

The exhibit is co-curated by the Academy’s vice president of curatorial affairs Doris Berger, along with Rhea Combs from Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute. In mounting this exhibition, they decided to focus on an era wherein the restrictions of segregation enabled filmmakers of color to craft their own stories without the influence of outside society. Thus, it presents little known cinematic efforts from the Jim Crow era to 1971. In this way, it sheds light on the little known “race films” made with all-Black casts to appeal to the African American market. 

This policy of racial exclusion proved to be an artistic windfall of sorts, as de-facto segregation prompted the rise of sepia auteurs such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams (who later portrayed Andy on TV’s The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show), who produced entertainment for “colored” communities across the country. 

One might argue that the restrictions of race allowed them to develop their own personal aesthetic or style, in much the same way that the separation of the races impacted the stylistic development of Black music.

Perhaps more importantly, this repression enabled a liberation of sorts as dark-skinned performers were able to step into roles outside the pigeon holed limits set by the Hollywood elite.

Among the gems uncovered for the exhibit are 1898‘s “Something Good-Negro Kiss,” lost until it turned up in 2017 just as “Regeneration” was being assembled. This 29-second clip, printed from a nitrate negative, is believed to be the earliest depiction of a couple of color in an amorous embrace. 

Purchased at a Louisiana plantation estate sale by researchers from the University of Southern California, it is believed to have been photographed by pioneering filmmaker William Selig in Chicago.

At a recent press prequel to the landmark exhibition’s official opening on Aug. 21, the audience was treated to an excerpt from “Stormy Weather” featuring the Nicholas Brothers (who later mentored another dancer named Michael Jackson). Fayard and Harold showcased their acrobatic tap dancing technique in that film.

Treasures from the 

restrictions of segregation

One notable entry into the collection is 1939’s newly restored “Reform School,” which allows Louise Beavers to break out of the stereotypical roles she was relegated to. Instead of the subservient roles of maid, servant or slave she depicted in “Imitation of Life” (1934) and others, she portrays a probation officer who stands up to the oppressive system that persecutes her juvenile clients.

Among the narratives presented are examples of various genres offered to outside society including westerns (1937’s “Harlem on the Prairie” starring velvet-toned baritone Herb Jefferies); a crime drama set in the Harlem numbers racket, “Dark Manhattan” (also from 1937); and the 1942 horror-comedy “Mr. Washington Goes to Town” starring Mantan Mooreland.

In addition to the scores of movie posters, props, scripts, and other paraphernalia that Berger and Combs unearthed from this country and overseas, a number of noteworthy artifacts are on display. These include one of the immortal Louis Armstrong’s trumpets; an evening gown worn by Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather;” tap shoes worn by the previously mentioned Nicholas brothers; and the Oscar won by Sidney Poitier for his performance in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.”

Urban movie patrons and 

the resurrection of Hollywood

The museum has also restored a copy of the rarely seen 1971 film “Black Chariot,” a Black nationalist epic featuring former football star Bernie Casey reflecting the shifting cultural and political sensibilities of the times.

These mid-century cultural changes, in turn, found entertainment taste-makers at odds with the preferences of a maturing movie-going public tired of prohibitively expensive Hollywood “epics,” manifesting itself in a dwindling profit margin.

When productions like “Shaft” (made with a budget of $500,000, going on to turn a $12 million profit); “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (estimated cost of $58,000 with a gross of around $24.8 million); and “Super Fly” (made for $500,000, it made $15.2 million at the box office) demonstrated the commercial viability of Black-oriented films on the entertainment marketplace with nominal investments, corporate Hollywood was given a reprieve from the economic doldrums it was plagued by.

A little known fact: So called “blaxploitation movies” were a central factor in lifting the motion picture industry from its financial slump with the collapse of the “Studio system” of the late 1960s. 

Cinefiles of a certain age might remember when the downtown areas of major cities turned Black, as minority movie patrons flocked there to see urban action epics marketed specifically towards them during this period, a phenomenon directly linked to the well known spectacle of “White Flight” of the mid-20th century.

Once the industry became financially solvent as the 1970s got underway, blaxploitation became a historical footnote.

Accompanying the exhibition is a separate video installation by Black British filmmaker and UC Santa Cruz professor Isaac Julien (recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth for “services to diversity and inclusion in art”) titled “Baltimore” (https://www.isaacjulien.com/projects/baltimore/). 

Conceived as a homage to director Melvin Van Peebles and his groundbreaking “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” it utilizes a giant, three paneled display with documentary style footage (originally shot on 16mm film, then transferred to DVD) of Van Peebles in his trademark cocked hat and cigar, strolling through various landmarks in Baltimore. He occasionally crosses paths with a feminine “Afo-cyborg,” perhaps as a mediation on cinematic (minority) representation, race, and the influence of blaxploitation on the media and society at large.

“Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971“ serves as a political reckoning of sorts as well, since the Academy is still reeling from the accusations and criticism of the #OscarsSoWhite movement in recent history. Reportedly, they have made good on their 2015 pledge to double the membership of minorities and women. 

The recent elevation of film scholar and advocate extraordinaire Jacqueline Stewart to the directorship  and presidency of the Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures will hopefully be an omen for increased diversity and inclusion in years to come.

“Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” opened on Sunday, Aug. 21, and runs through April 9, 2023. 

For more information on this landmark event, visit the Academy website at https://www.academymuseum.org/, or go directly to the dedicated website for the exhibit at https://tinyurl.com/ 3ypyfny7.

Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.

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