A new exhibit at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971,” provides an eye-opening lesson about Black film history, and looks at it from the early days to after the civil rights movement. The exhibition provides an in-depth look at Black contributions to American filmmaking from the onset. The galleries display images and clips from the silent film days, early talkies, films made for Black audiences, and other periods that demonstrated the breadth of their involvement, far beyond stereotypes and tokens.
Moviemaking shapes culture and images of life in other areas and times When people think about early Black film actors, icons like Josephine Baker, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Paul Robeson, and others come to mind. However, “Regeneration” highlights and celebrates the contributions of Blacks to filmmaking in a wide range of capacities.
“This work had to happen,” exclaimed director Ava DuVernay, who serves as an Academy governor and was an advisor to the exhibition, at a preview event. DuVernay talked about the previous generations of Black artists on whose shoulders she and others stand “who rebelled against norms and notions of who they could and should be. … “That transformed the way that we, as Black people, saw ourselves and the way that we were seen.”
She noted that “Blacks have been involved in the American film industry from the start,” added DuVernay. “Present not as caricature and stereotypes, but as creators and producers and innovators.”
The Academy Museum’s “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971” was five years in the making. The exhibition consists of several galleries that explore, chronologically, film history and looks at the political reality of Black life in America from the end of the 19th Century to 1971. Sections address:
- Early cinema from 1897 to 1915, which includes a clip from “Something Good,” showing the first film kiss between two Black actors.
- “Race films,” which were independent pictures featuring all-Black casts created between 1916 and the 1940s for segregated movie theaters.
- The expanded roles for Blacks in early musicals, with a look at the career of and footage featuring Josephine Baker.
- A large section highlights various “Stars and Icons” from the 1920s through the late 1950s, including McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and others who achieved mainstream fame; (McDaniel’s Oscar win and acceptance speech footage are featured.)
- A look at World War II propaganda films and newsreels leads into a section on the impact of Black freedom struggles, Dr. Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, and other political changes on filmmakers.
Objects, Photos, and Clips
“Regeneration” includes excerpts from rarely seen films, documentaries, and newsreels. There are also costumes, props, photos, and film posters that enhance the exhibit. Additionally, there are portraits of dozens of Black stars, tap shoes used by the Nicholas Brothers, one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets, costumes worn by Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” and Sammy Davis, Jr. in “Porgy and Bess,” along with a 1920s camera from the Norman Film Company, a producer of race films.
“Regeneration” features rarely seen excerpts of films restored by the Academy Film Archive along with other footage that brings the photos, props, and didactics on the wall to life. The Academy Museum encourages visitors to watch the extensive collection of film clips (do not miss the Nicholas brothers’ amazing dance routine from “Stormy Weather”!) with seating in areas with clips running. There is a curated selection of clips from race films, footage of James Baldwin and others speaking about race relations, and excerpts from various other films that enhance the movie history presented.
The Academy Museum’s new Director and President Jacqueline Stewart noted that the “Regeneration” exhibition “seeks to restore lost chapters of American film history as it elevates the contributions of Black artists to present a more inclusive story.” She noted the museum’s efforts to present a more expansive vision of American film history.”
The Academy Museum’s “Regeneration” exhibit before it closes on April 9, 2023. For those who cannot visit the museum, check out their complementary website – www.regenerationblackcinema.org – which builds on the exhibition’s themes and delivers additional content.
Written by Dyanne Weiss
“Regeneration” exhibition walk-through and press conference on August 17, 2022
Shot of the Nicholas Brothers in a scene from “Stormy Weather (1943), photographic print, gelatin silver, courtesy Margaret Herrick Library and Academy Museum.
Photos by Dyanne Weiss of Hattie McDaniel delivering Oscar acceptance speech and wall of Black icons at Academy Museum