When we think of icons from the golden age of Hollywood, rarely do we recognize the underappreciated performances of Black talent, who were working tirelessly to make films. Their legacies will finally be honored with “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” an exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which runs until April 9, 2023.
The exhibit highlights early cinema trailblazers, showing clips from films like 1898’s Something Good — Negro Kiss, starring Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, and displaying historic cinema artifacts, such as tap-dancing shoes from the Nicholas Brothers, dancers who saw their star rise in the 1930s, as well as film posters detailing the rise of Blaxploitation films in the 1970s in Harlem and beyond.
The exhibit includes more than 200 objects that detail Black cinema. There is a rarely seen sequined evening gown worn by Lena Horne in 1943’s Stormy Weather; photos from the sets of historic Black films; and stills, memorabilia, and clothing from 70 years of Black filmmaking. It includes never-before-seen costume drawings from Carmen Jones (1954); glamour shots of leading Black film stars; costumes worn by Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy and Bess (1959); cowboy boots worn by Herb Jeffries in Harlem on the Prairie (1937); a 1920s camera from Norman Studios; and a Mills Panoram “Soundie” machine from the 1940s. It also has one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets on display and honors Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to win an Oscar, for her role in Gone With the Wind. If you can’t make it to L.A. to see the exhibit, all the items are detailed and documented on the exhibition website.
Co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea L. Combs spoke with Shondaland about American cinema, historic MGM deals for Black actors, and the power of jazz music in Black films.
NADJA SAYEJ: How difficult was it putting this exhibit together, and why did you decide on the title “Regeneration”?
DORIS BERGER: It started in the Margaret Herrick Library, which is inside the Academy, where we have amazing collections of so-called race film posters from the late 1910s to the 1940s. They were posters for indie films made by Black filmmakers for a Black audience. It was the kind of film you wouldn’t see in Hollywood at that time. The posters were the seed of the exhibition.
RHEA L. COMBS: It was important for us to show these film posters, and show them in a context that allowed a visitor to see where this work was situated in a larger conversation.
NS: Where did the posters come from, and what kind of condition were they in?
DB: Some were in impeccable condition; others were not. Some underwent considerable restoration from our paper conservator. The Spencer Williams poster took 90 hours to restore. A lot of love and care went into restoring these posters to make them presentable.
RC: We got some from the library, others from the Lucas Museum, others from UCLA, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and more. There was a range of institutions who participated. That’s the beauty of this exhibition — it shows how we’ve been able to work with them all, which is why it’s so special. It does pull from collections all over; this is the first time where unique objects and dispersed conversations have been brought together in one place.
NS: Is it long overdue?
RC: We’re hoping people expand how they see film history, American cinema, and African American participation both in front of and behind the camera. It is long overdue to expand conversations in what makes American cinema, how it is defined, and how an African American presence is not solely devoted to perpetuating racist stereotypes. It’s not solely the experience of Black people within film history. It’s important not to dismiss this as coming at a time when vitriol and racism is at a high point. People’s perceptions of African Americans are often regulated to stereotypical understandings of Black culture. These trailblazers made films despite the challenges that Black people were facing at that time.
DB: That’s also a key part of the research phase of this exhibition, which lasted five years. We started the exhibition in the year 1898 [with a film that] was discovered in 2017 called Something Good — Negro Kiss, which is the first on-camera depiction of Black affection. It’s a vaudeville performance. It’s a positive representation of Black performance and just proves that African American participation was always part of American cinema.
NS: You have a dress by Lena Horne, a woman who revolutionized the entertainment industry. What did she mean to the Black community in the 1940s?
DB: In the exhibit, you see her in Stormy Weather, from 1943, where she wears the costume. She performed in Harlem nightclubs too before she was discovered by Hollywood. She was one of the first, if not the first, Black women actresses to receive a seven-year contract with MGM. But despite all of that, she still experienced racism. She was sometimes cast in supporting roles but cut out when the films screened in the South. There was a level of institutional racism that excluded her talent. A lot of talent had to endure this.
RC: The advocacy from the Black community supported her contract to make sure she wasn’t given stereotypical roles. It was a caveat in the contract. [Civil rights activist] Walter White, the president of NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], made sure at MGM that didn’t happen. But there was a double-edged sword. There were some opportunities they didn’t include her in, for a variety of reasons. Her dress came from an individual who we collaborated with, and the conservation of this dress took several months.
NS: You have a Soundie machine playing a selection of eight short music films, known as Soundies. How did that come together?
DB: Soundies were short musical films produced in the 1940s. There were over 1,800 Soundie films produced during that time. They were dance, song, and musical performances of jazz and swing numbers captured on 16mm film. It created new opportunities for Black performers who were active on nightlife stages in places like Harlem.
NS: One photo shows the Nicholas Brothers in mid-dance. Can you tell us the story behind it?
RC: It’s from Stormy Weather, and they’re captured mid-flight, is what it feels like. They were dynamic, talented tap dancers who were thrust into fame at a young age. They were vaudeville acts who performed in Harlem and all over the country. In Stormy Weather, they did acrobatic moves, and their performance in it has become iconic for them and this film.
NS: Speaking of Harlem, you feel New York City as a thread throughout this exhibition. Was that intentional?
RC: Yes, I think it’s important to recognize the hub for African American performers has a range of locales; it’s not just California or Hollywood. And when you think of Hollywood cinema, you have to think through their live performances too, and what was happening in New York City. These are places where filmmakers were able to use the subway trains as a place of distribution. It’s insightful to recognize that. The way in which African American opportunities popped up where the art and creatives were, and it wasn’t always Los Angeles — Jacksonville, Florida, was a hub too.
Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City who has written 5 books, including Biennale Bitch and The Celebrity Interview Book.
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