T he history of Black filmmaking in the United States is as fraught as it is beautiful: From the earliest decades of cinema, white and Black performers often appeared in blackface, while the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements saw Black characters unapologetically embracing their culture, even as Blaxploitation films permeated the cinematic landscape.
Black performers, producers, directors and film artists — such as vaudevillians Walker and Williams, Oscar Micheaux, Herb Jeffries, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee and William Greaves, to name just a few — not only developed an enduring independent tradition, they transformed mainstream Hollywood, fueled and reflected sociopolitical movements, and captured Black experience in all its robust complexity
Often overlooked, this cinematic history is now being told in “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971,” a first-of-its-kind exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Exploring seven decades, from the late 19th century through the Civil Rights movements and into the early 1970s, the exhibition highlights the work of African American filmmakers. Dialogues with visual artists — such as Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Kara Walker — expand contemporary discussions about US film history.
An important aspect of this exhibition is that it was curated and organized by a team of groundbreaking women, including Jacqueline Stewart, the host of Silent Sunday Nights on Turner Classic Movies and director and president of the Academy Museum, and co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea L. Combs. An advisory group of distinguished scholars, curators and filmmakers assisted with the exhibition, which also received The Sotheby’s Prize in 2018.
Why the title “Regeneration”? Combs told Sotheby’s it came from an adaptation of Two Years in the Southern Seas (1923) by Charlotte Cameron. “The full film doesn’t exist. We only have ten minutes of this film that is deteriorating, but it’s an example of this vibrant moment of ‘race films’ taking place between the teens through the forties,” she said. “It became a real affirmation and aspiration for us, because we wanted to regenerate conversations around this work while figuring out ways that we can preserve it.”
The earliest film in the exhibition dates to 1898. Combs, who serves as the director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, explained: “The earliest known image of Black people on screen predates the 1900s, so we wanted not to overlook that very specific period in Black history. That’s just a few years after emancipation.” The exhibition continues through Civil Rights in the 1960s, with films about Black community, the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The latest film dates to 1971. “Everything that happened in the late sixties has reverberations,” Combs said. “If you stop at 1970, you miss this pivotal moment just before Hollywood went into Black exploitation.” According to Combs, it was a watershed year. Black filmmakers had established a robust independent film industry, with financing, directing and producing all operating separately from Hollywood to support the appetites of a large audience for these types of films.
“We wanted to regenerate conversations around this work while figuring out ways that we can preserve it.”
Kimberly Steward, an early board member and trustee of the Academy Museum, is elated with the exhibition, which includes all sorts of artifacts from nearly a century of filmmaking. “Art, scripts and all the things that come off films should be archived for people to see and experience,” she said. “Looking at Oscar Micheaux’s book The Homesteader, which he sold to finance his first film, gave me goosebumps. As a film investor, it’s important for me to create quality on that side of the business. It changed my life to see someone who looked like me doing that work way before I was born.”
The Sotheby’s Prize, a $250,000 award given to exhibitions that break new ground in underrepresented areas of art history, was crucial to this preservation. “It was the initial fruit that gave us the spark and reinforced that we had a really good idea,” Steward said. “Sotheby’s was keen that we expand the conversations around art history by incorporating film.”
On view until 9 April 2023, the exhibition is both accessible to everyone and a cinephile’s dream. “When you walk away from this extraordinary display of Black cinematic artifacts, you’ll be inspired, reinvigorated and proud as a Black American,” Steward said. “It gives the world a viewpoint into a time when we barely had money to put clothes on our backs, take care of our families, put food on the table and fight for our freedoms. Yet we still found ways to create art.”
“Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971” is on view at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles from 21 August 2022 through 9 April 2023.