Exhibit Reveals Role of Black Americans in Shaping Film Industry: ‘This Story Has Never Been Shown’ | Los Angeles


JThe passionate embrace and kiss between vaudeville actors Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle lasts just under 30 seconds, but is thought to be the earliest example of black intimacy recorded on film dating back to 1898. C This is where the Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles begins, showcasing some of the earliest works by black actors and filmmakers throughout American history.

Whether through neglect or discrimination, the historical contributions of black cinema to American cinematic tradition have often been overlooked. But the exhibition is the first of its kind that seeks to highlight how black artists have always played a vital role in the history of cinema. The exhibit is named after Richard Norman’s 1923 film Regeneration, a romantic thriller filmed in Jacksonville, Florida.

Together, co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea L Combs have endeavored to encapsulate significant movements within black cinema – loosely defined as on-screen portrayals of African Americans by black actors and filmmakers. The seven decades they capture reveal a complex history around narratives of race in the United States.

The exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles shows how black artists have played a vital role in the history of cinema. Photography: Courtesy of EJS Media

“This exhibition showcases the generations of black artists on whose shoulders we stand,” said acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay, while introducing the exhibition and its organizers. “Their very presence on screen and behind the camera was an act of revolution, a cultural, political and emotional victory that echoed through the generations.”

Despite the constraints of racial violence and de jure segregation, black filmmakers and actors strove for more accurate stories that described their lives on screen. The exhibit reveals that black filmmakers and actors were critiquing and creating counter-narratives to the dominant on-screen racist caricatures.

The ingenuity of black artists cannot be overstated for these periods, says Charlene Regester, a film historian and professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“[These films give] you a lens on how African Americans might have seen themselves,” Regester says. “These artists, subverted those [racist] performances, although they could not do it openly, but secretly and subtly.

A woman with long braids speaks on a podium on stage.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay presents the exhibition Regeneration and its organizers. Photography: Jireh Deng

Take for example the work of Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering black filmmaker of the 1920s who produced and directed more than 40 films. His work has addressed many socio-political issues affecting the black community, especially in films such as The Homesteader (1919), which dealt with race relations at a time of censorship.

A few years ago, The Birth of a Nation (1914), was a film that was hailed as a technological feat for its time, but which explicitly displayed racists and perpetuated stereotypes about African Americans. It was a popular film among white audiences.

Regeneration debuts against the backdrop of national tensions surrounding police violence and the restriction of black-authored books and ethnic studies in public schools. The exhibit is complemented by a series of public film screenings throughout the Academy Museum and is accompanied by a free high school curriculum available to educators to use in their classrooms.

Combs in particular hopes the exhibit is a way for young people to look to the past as a way to understand the current struggle around racial injustice and representation.

“The exhibition folds back into historical moments – his social, cultural stories and experiences,” says Combs. “And that gives us an understanding that this is an ongoing, long-standing conversation.”

Rows of black and white images show black actors throughout history.
Rhea L Combs, co-curator of the Regeneration exhibit, hopes it can help young people understand racial injustice and representation. Photography: Courtesy of EJS Media

Jacqueline Stewart, the new director and president of the Academy Museum, has spent years as a professor and film scholar specializing in the archiving and preservation of film noir and silent films. Her class is now the audience and she hopes to use her unique position to educate a wider audience about the history and practices of cinema and inspire new generations of artists.

“The title Regeneration doesn’t just come from a racing movie, but it’s about successive waves of black filmmakers,” Steward said. “Times got tough, but they kept adding. They kept trying to create a plan for the next generation. It’s kind of an ebb and flow, two steps forward, one step back.

One such contemporary filmmaker is Isaac Julian, whose three-channel installation Baltimore runs alongside Regeneration. Baltimore is a nod to Melvin Van Peebles’ “Blaxploitation” work of the 1970s which were independent, low-cost films by black artists for black audiences. For Julian, seeing Regeneration is both an emotional and life-changing experience.

“It’s an amazing story of American cinema that has never been told to the public and certainly has never been the subject of such significant exposure of its kind at the Academy. It marks a special moment,” he said. “It’s wonderful to come here and to be able to have [the visual arts and Black cinema history] talking.”

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