Long before Denzel Washington, Spike Lee or even Sidney Poitier, generations of black filmmakers played a key role in shaping American cinema and combating racial stereotypes, a major new Hollywood exhibit highlights.
“Regeneration: African-American Cinema 1898-1971,” opening Sunday at the Academy Museum of Arts in Los Angeles, captures key moments in the history of African-American cinema that were ignored by major Hollywood studios and audiences at the time or have fallen into long oblivion.
Beginning with a recently rediscovered tape from 1898 of two black vaudeville performers embracing, the exhibit recounts the largely unknown history of “race movies,” hundreds of independent films made by blacks, with blacks, and for blacks, in a time when theaters were sites of racial segregation.
“Are you ready to hear a secret? We blacks have always been present in American cinema, from its very beginning. Not as caricatures and stereotypes but as creators, innovators and as an avid audience,” Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay said at a press event.
“We should have seen it a lot sooner, but this is the day this starts.”
“Regeneration” is the second largest temporary exhibition to appear at the Academy Museum, opened last September, seven years later than planned, by the organization behind the Oscars.
Exhibits include Poitier’s historic 1964 Oscar for best actor for “Lilies of the Valley,” tap shoes worn by the Nicholas Brothers, a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong, and costumes worn by Sammy Davis Jr in ” Porgy and Bess.
Planning for the exhibit began in 2016, when curators dug through the Academy’s extensive archives and found the first posters promoting films with an “all-black cast” or “a great movie with only black stars.”
“I was surprised because I didn’t know about these films before I started working on the exhibition,” Doris Berger, co-curator, told AFP.
“I wondered why we don’t know anything about this. We should know!
“These are really exciting films and great proof that African-American artists have embodied all kinds of characters and dabbled in many narrative lines. And besides, they looked really cool!” Berger concluded.
– Black jeans –
Audiences can see carefully restored footage from these films, now known as “race movies,” including the western musical “Harlem on the Prairie,” the gangster flick “Dark Manhattan,” or the horror comedy “Mr Washington Goes To Town.” .
Many others have been lost forever, and their posters are “a kind of imprint that they existed,” explains another co-curator, Rhea Combs.
While the most popular Hollywood movies cast black actors of the time as “butlers and nannies, in supporting roles,” this independent genre made them shine as “lawyers, doctors, nurses and cowboys,” says Berger.
“This is proof that (Hollywood) could have been so much more enriching and exciting.”
The tour ends with the rise of the Blaxplotation genre in the early 1970s, pioneered by Melvin Van Peebles, who, like Poitier, died months before the exhibition opened.
“I trust they would have been proud,” Combs told AFP.
– “We were in debt” –
The exhibition is a major event for the Academy, which in recent years has had to deal with accusations of a lack of diversity in its rankings.
A movement born in 2015, #OscarsSoWhite (what an Oscar awards so white), also criticized her for the shortage of black nominees.
Since then, it has delivered on a promise to double the number of women and minority members.
“Regeneration” has stunned even well-known contemporary black filmmakers.
“I was beyond surprised…I didn’t know about this,” director Charles Burnett acknowledged. “If I had known, about actresses and things like that, I would have a completely different notion and probably a completely different approach to cinema.”
DuVernay added: “This job had to happen. We were in debt. It’s important, it’s crucial work.”