Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971
On ViewAcademy Museum Of Motion Pictures
Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971
August 21, 2022–April 9, 2023
Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 is jam packed with treasures and revelations. At the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, you’ll find film clips, movie posters, historical photographs, scripts, film scores, cameras, costumes, artworks by boldface names, and even miscellaneous objects, such as tap shoes worn by the remarkable Nicholas Brothers, as well as one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets. They’ve all been brought together to tell an unfamiliar story. This astonishing, well-paced journey through seven-plus decades of movie history suggests that this fledgling institution, only a year old, has already emerged as a significant place for film aficionados to discover the past, present, and future of moving pictures.
A compact show with galleries of varying dimensions, it opens with clips from black-and-white silent movies and closes with multiple screens playing selections from color films starring the likes of Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, and Richard Roundtree, directed by, among others, Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, and Melvin Van Peebles. Other spaces that celebrate both performers and movie makers feature a mix of singing cowboys, impressive dance routines, big bands, race films from 1916 into the 1940s, propaganda vehicles from World War II, and documentaries about the civil rights movement.
Something Good—Negro Kiss, a short film from 1898 that was recently discovered in two different iterations in venues at USC and in Norway greets visitors to Regeneration. The smooching couple offers a change of pace from most movie histories that tend to open with the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 shot of a train pulling into the station in Ciotat. As it is, though, love is not quite in the air. On an adjacent wall, Glenn Ligon’s Double America 2 (2014)—the letters are both right side up and upside down—constantly blinks as if it were a berserk movie marquee.
Nearby, two walls are covered with movie posters on which Black actors and actresses appear. They’re advertising features such as Harlem is Heaven, Black Gold, Harlem on the Prairie, not to mention The Green Eyed Monster, which promises “Thrills! Action! Punch!” in a “Stupendous All-Star Negro Motion Picture.”
This is how race films, the eye opener of the exhibition, are introduced. A large wall map identifies cities in fourteen states as well as the District of Columbia where studios that produced these works once were located. Selma director Ava DuVernay points out in the excellent catalogue, “Historically there have not been art-house cinemas or even theaters, period, in Black neighborhoods.” Instead, race films were distributed to churches, schools, and segregated theaters. With Regeneration, a huge lost chapter of Black cinema has finally been recovered.
Though there are edifying documentaries and newsreels to be viewed, it’s the overwhelming entertainment value of many of the movies that’s especially memorable. Even at the press preview, attendees continually gasped at an extended scene highlighting a Nicholas Brothers dance routine. To be sure, the big band numbers are exceptional. And a wall labeled Stars and Icons, on which there are forty-five black-and-white head shots of Black actors and actresses, could have kept Andy Warhol busy for years making silkscreen portraits. A lot of the unexpected items in the exhibition, say, costumes worn in Stormy Weather by Lena Horne in 1943 and the ingenious Mills Panoram from the 1940s dazzle in this section of Regeneration. During the 1940s, you’d insert a coin into a Panoram, a cross between a jukebox and an early television set, and be able to watch several Soundies, short musicals that lasted for about three minutes.
The installation is exceptional, too. Curators from all sorts of museums (encyclopedic, contemporary art, natural history, historical societies, maritime, military and war memorials) should study the compelling way Regeneration’s displays have been blended together. Each gallery invites you to enter a new and wondrous world. We probably should expect no less from an institution that has such strong connections to Hollywood movies. But then, when was the last time you watched the Oscar ceremony on television? Indeed, may I suggest that the next Oscar telecast be produced by the team responsible for Regeneration.