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A new exhibit in LA explores the complicated history of Black Cinema

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    A new exhibit in LA explores the complicated history of Black Cinema NPR

Movie posters at the Academy Museum’s Black Cinema exhibition. Mandalit del Barco/NPR News

The Academy Museum in Los Angeles is celebrating key moments in Black cinema, from the 1890s until 1971. Its new exhibition, “Regeneration,” includes a clip of Hattie McDaniel, the first Black woman to win an Academy Award, as she gives her 1940 acceptance speech.

Seven gallery spaces feature performances and costumes such as Lena Horne’s gown and home movies of the Nicholas Brothers. One room shows a staircase painted with the word “colored,” recreating segregated movie theaters back in the day pointing Black and Brown audiences to the balconies.

Josephine Baker sings and dances on camera in the 1920s, and there are tons of movie clips, by legends such as Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier.

The showcase begins with a silent film of two vaudeville performers in 1898.

“It’s the earliest known image of Black people kissing on film,” says Jacqueline Stewart, the Academy Museum’s director and president. The exhibition has two prints of Something Good- Negro Kiss, recently found in USC’s film archive and Norway. Stewart figures the film was a novelty among the genre of “kiss” films that were popular at that time.

“Regeneration” features seven galleries exploring Black representation in film. Mandalit del Barco/The Academy Museum

“During that era, there are earlier images of Black folks, and they are stealing chickens and eating watermelon and getting smoked out of their cabins. And stereotyping that came 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 that that early on.”

For the exhibition, the museum restored a film from 1939 called Reform School. Unlike her previous subservient roles, actress Louise Beavers plays a probation officer in the film that was one of the many so-called “race films” produced for Black audiences from the 1910s to 1940s. They included cowboy movies, thrillers, action-adventure films and more.

“We see the richness of Black performers, not just playing mammies and butlers as they were during their time in Hollywood since they were not afforded full representation at that time,” says co-curator Doris Berger. “They should have and could have been, as we see in this parallel film history.”

Co-curator Rhea Combs hopes people walk away from the exhibit with a sense of possibility and empowerment.

“There were people working in front of and behind the camera that were advocating and fighting and pushing forward and using this new technology and this art form to really create these vibrant, rich stories that highlight the complexities and the full humanity of Black people and looking at sort of American history through the lens of African-Americans,” Combs says.

The exhibition includes performances from all-Black musicals and civil rights era documentaries – all leading to 1971, the year when Melvin Van Peeble’s movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was released. That same year, Robert Goodwin directed the indie film Black Chariot, about an underground Black Power movement group. The museum has restored a copy of the rarely seen film.

The cinematic survey ends just before the rise of Blaxploitation films in the 1970s, when Shaft, Superfly and Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown movies were first screened.

“Regeneration in many ways is a pre-history,” says Stewart. “It shows us that throughout the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era, there were creative folks who were using film as a medium in the Black freedom struggle.”

Acclaimed filmmaker Charles Burnett was among the first people to see the exhibition. “For me, history started here in this museum,” he says. “Realizing that we were involved in filmmaking at a really early age, it’s about rediscovering our history, in a sense. If I had learned about this earlier, I wonder what kind of effect it would have had on my filmmaking.”

The curators behind the exhibition say they hope that museum goers will not only look at film history in new ways but will also begin conversations about representation and more.

Filmmakers Ava Duvernay and Charles Burnett at the Academy Museum’s exhibition “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971.” Mandalit del Barco/NPR News

“The bottom line is that this work had to happen. It’s overdue. It’s important. It’s crucial work,” says filmmaker Ava Duvernay. She consulted on the exhibition that she says “showcases the generations of Black artists whose shoulders we stand, artists who defied society, who rebelled against norms and notions of who they could and should be. Their very presence onscreen and behind the camera was an act of revolution, a cultural, political and emotional victory that has echoed through generations, a triumph that transformed the way that we as black people saw ourselves and the way that we were seen.”

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

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Academy Museum in Los Angeles is celebrating key moments in Black cinema from the 1890s to the 1970s, like Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech at the 1940 Oscars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELECAST OF 12TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

HATTIE MCDANIEL: I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.

RASCOE: McDaniel was the first Black woman to win an Academy Award. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco tells us more about the exhibition titled “Regeneration,” which opens today.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The exhibition’s seven gallery spaces feature costumes, home movies and a recreated staircase painted with the word colored, like those pointing Black and brown audiences to the balconies of segregated movie theaters back in the day. Josephine Baker sings and dances on camera in the 1920s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPHINE BAKER: (Singing in French).

DEL BARCO: And there are tons of movie clips by legends like Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “A MAN CALLED ADAM”)

CICELY TYSON: (As Claudia Ferguson) ‘Cause I’m more woman than you’ve ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT”)

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) I earned that money, 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “COTTON COMES TO HARLEM”)

CALVIN LOCKHART: (As Deke O’Malley) Are you Black enough to hear me?

DEL BARCO: The showcase begins with a silent film of two vaudeville performers in 1898.

JACQUELINE STEWART: It’s the earliest known image of Black people kissing on film.

DEL BARCO: Jacqueline Stewart is the new director and president of the Academy Museum. She says two prints of “Something Good – Negro Kiss” were recently found in USC’s film archive and in Norway.

STEWART: During that era, there are earlier images of Black folks, and they are stealing chickens and eating watermelon and getting smoked out of their cabins and stereotyping that came from the minstrel tradition. And what we see in this footage are two finely dressed Black people showing affection and fun. It’s a revelation to see that that early on.

DEL BARCO: For the exhibition, the museum restored a film from 1939 called “Reform School.” Unlike her previous subservient roles, Louise Beavers plays a probation officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “REFORM SCHOOL”)

LOUISE BEAVERS: (As Mother Barton) It’s the truth, and you know it.

DEL BARCO: “Reform School” was one of the many so-called race films produced for Black audiences from the 19-teens to the 1940s. There were cowboy movies, thrillers, action-adventure films and more, say co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea Combs.

DORIS BERGER: We see the richness of Black performers, not just playing mammies and butlers as they were during their time in Hollywood, since they were not afforded full representation at that time. They should have and could have been, as we see in this parallel film history.

RHEA COMBS: I would hope that people are able to take away from this a real sense of possibility.

DEL BARCO: The exhibition includes clips from all-Black musicals and civil rights-era documentaries, all leading to 1971, the year of Melvin Van Peeble’s movie “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and the indie film “Black Chariot,” which the museum restored.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Soon the world will know that Black is beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Say it again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Black is beautiful.

DEL BARCO: Stewart says the survey ends just before the rise of Blaxploitation films of the 1970s.

STEWART: Where you had films like “Shaft” and “Super Fly” and the amazing Pam Grier in “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy.” So “Regeneration,” in many ways, is a pre-history. And it shows us that Black filmmakers were not just working so early on, but that throughout the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era, that there were creative folks who were using film as a medium in the Black freedom struggle.

DEL BARCO: Acclaimed filmmaker Charles Burnett says the 73 years of Black film history is amazing.

CHARLES BURNETT: For me, history started here in this museum, you know, and realizing that we were involved in filmmaking at a really early age. It’s about, you know, rediscovering our history in a sense, you know? If I had learned about this earlier, seen this earlier, I wonder what kind of effect it would have had on my filmmaking.

DEL BARCO: Filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who consulted on the exhibition, says this showcase of Black artists is crucial and long overdue.

AVA DUVERNAY: Artists who defied society, who rebelled against norms and notions of who they could and should be, their very presence on screen and behind the camera was an act of revolution.

DEL BARCO: The exhibition also sparks joy. One projected highlight is a scene from the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.”

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: The Nicholas Brothers tap dance around Cab Calloway’s big band. Then they take turns jumping over each other down a stairway, landing in splits. All you can do is watch in amazement and give thanks it was captured on film.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: NPR

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