The Academy Museum’s Regeneration exhibit examines Black Cinema: NPR

Film posters in the Academy Museum’s Black Cinema exhibition.

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Film posters in the Academy Museum’s Black Cinema exhibition.

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That Academy Museum in Los Angeles celebrates key moments in black cinema from 1890 to 1971. His new exhibition “regeneration,” includes a clip of Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar as she exists 1940 acceptance speech.

Seven gallery rooms feature performances and costumes such as Lena Horne’s gown and home videos of the Nicholas Brothers. One room features a staircase painted with the word “colored,” recreating separate movie theaters of yesteryear, directing black and brown audiences to the balconies.

Josephine Baker sings and dances for the camera in the 1920s, and there are countless film clips of legends like Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier.

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The showcase begins with a silent film by two vaudeville artists from 1898.

“It’s the earliest known image of black people kissing on film,” said Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum. The exhibition has two prints by Something good – Negro kiss, recently found in the USC film archive and in Norway. Stewart believes the film is a novelty in the genre of then-popular “kiss” movies.

“Regeneration” comprises seven galleries that deal with the representation of black people in film.

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“Regeneration” comprises seven galleries that deal with the representation of black people in film.

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“During this era, there were previous images of black people stealing chickens and eating watermelons and being smoked out of their huts. And stereotypes that come from the minstrel tradition,” says Stewart. “And what we see in this footage are two finely dressed black people showing affection and fun. And it’s a revelation to see it so early.”

For the exhibition, the museum restored a 1939 film called educational establishment. In contrast to her previous submissive roles, actress Louise Beavers plays a parole officer in the film, which was one of the many so-called “racing films” produced for black audiences from the 1910s to the 1940s. These included cowboy movies, thrillers, action-adventure movies, and more.

“We see the richness of black performers not just playing moms and butlers like they were during their time in Hollywood because they weren’t given full representation at the time,” says co-curator Doris Berger. “They should have been and could have been, as we see in this parallel film story.”

Co-curator Rhea Combs hopes people will leave the exhibition with a sense of possibility and empowerment.

“There were people working in front of and behind the camera who advocated and fought and pushed and leveraged this new technology and this art form to really create these vibrant, rich stories that highlight the complexity and full humanity of Black people and look sort of seeing American history through the lens of African Americans,” says Combs.

The exhibition includes screenings of all-Black civil rights musicals and documentaries—all up through 1971, the year Melvin Van Peeble’s film was made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss song was published. That same year, Robert Goodwin directed the indie film Black chariot, via an underground Black Power movement group. The museum has restored a copy of the rarely seen film.

The cinematic inventory ends just prior to the rise of blaxploitation films in the 1970s, when Wave, Superfly and Pam Griers fox brown Movies were shown first.

“Regeneration is a history in many ways,” says Stewart. “It shows us that during the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era, there were creative people who used film as a medium in black freedom struggles.”

Acclaimed filmmaker Charles Burnett was among the first visitors to the exhibition. “For me, the story started here in this museum,” he says. “Realizing that we were involved in filmmaking from a very early age is, in a way, rediscovering our history. If I had known about this sooner, I wonder what impact it would have had on my filmmaking.”

The curators behind the exhibition hope museumgoers will not only look at film history in new ways, but also start conversations about representation and more.

Filmmakers Ava Duvernay and Charles Burnett at the Academy Museum exhibit, Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971.

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Filmmakers Ava Duvernay and Charles Burnett at the Academy Museum exhibit, Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971.

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“The bottom line is that this work had to happen. She’s overdue. She is important. It’s critical work,” says filmmaker Ava Duvernay. She consulted the exhibition, which she says “represents the generations of black artists on whose shoulders we stand, artists who defied society, who rebelled against norms and notions of who they could and should be. Her mere presence on screen and behind the camera was an act of revolution, a cultural, political and emotional victory that resonated for generations, a triumph that changed the way we black people saw ourselves and how we are were seen.”

Cicely Tyson

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Cicely Tyson

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The Academy Museum’s Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 exhibition runs from August 21, 2022 to April 9, 2023.

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