Regeneration: film noir 1898-1971The second major temporary exhibition at the Academy Museum of Moving Images, opening August 21, is a nuanced exploration of the ways Black filmmakers and performers have impacted, defined and expanded American film. The exhibition (which was five years in the making) takes a comprehensive look at the history of film and black visual culture more broadly, highlighting notable items such as the original costumes worn by Lena Horne in stormy weather (1943) and Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy and Bess (1959), tap shoes by the Nicholas Brothers, and one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets.
The show’s beginning, 1898, marks the creation of “the first known moving image of African-American performers on screen, [seen] in a dignified way,” says Doris Berger, co-curator and vice president of curatorial affairs at the Academy Museum. The program concludes with material from 1971, the dawn of the Blaxploitation subgenre, which acknowledges the change that took place as black cinematic arts became available to and embraced by the general public.
“We’re looking at independent films as well as Hollywood, and we’re looking both in front of the camera and behind the camera,” says Rhea Combs, co-curator and director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. She adds that the exhibit is anchored “with four thinkers: Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and WEB Du Bois, [and looks at] the ways these 19th-century scholars understood the power of images and representation, and how that baton was passed to independent filmmakers in their teens, ’20s and ’30s to carry this charge forward.”
According to Combs, the ways in which African-American images have historically been represented have informed the entire show, which features photography, scripts, posters, drawings, newsreels, and more.
The show provides a sociopolitical context for early experimental works such as “race movies,” which were independently made productions in the 1910s through 1940s designed for black audiences and featuring all-black casts. And the “Stars and Icons” gallery, with more than 50 glamorous portraits on display, pays tribute to black artists who were household names, as well as those who never quite crossed over with the mainstream. “Even within the Hollywood film industry, there were a lot of people who had uncredited roles all along,” says Berger.
“We recognize that Blackness is not a monolith. So there’s this idea of really understanding that there were ecosystems of creative people feeding off each other,” says Combs. “And this idea of regeneration is one where I think we not only find inspiration through a literal ‘racing movie’ title by that name, but also this idea of creativity that fuels other creative opportunities. That’s another reason why we incorporate visual art with film art: to make sure we’re recognizing that these are porous ideas and that people are inspired by a variety of different artistic endeavors.”
To build on the contemporary elements of black film culture for the exhibition catalog in particular, the team interviewed filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins, Dawn Porter, Charles Burnett, Ava DuVernay, and spoke with descendants of notable acts (such as Cab Calloway’s grandson and Tony Nicholas, the son of one of the Nicholas brothers), in an effort to clarify the continuum: an acknowledgment of how the early films not only informed the films of the 20th century, but also how they continue to inform the art that is made today.
Another notable aspect of the show is the exploration of lesser-known film formats of yesteryear such as “soundies,” short three-minute musical films that served as precursors to today’s music video. “[They were] really important to black artists and musicians…they were shown in [panoram] machines in cafes, bars and taverns,” says Berger. “It was so exciting to see that long before MTV, there were musical movies that really offered a great opportunity for incredible African-American talent to perform not only in nightclubs but also in movies, first short, then long as well.”
Programming around the exhibit (which runs through April 9) will be robust, in the form of a series of films programmed by Bernardo Rondeau, the museum’s senior director of film programs. Screenings begin on August 25 with Reformatory (1939), a film previously believed lost to time, but rediscovered through research. Starring Louise Beavers, it was restored in 2020 by the Academy Film Archive specifically for this exhibition, making it available to view after many decades. Approximately 20 more films will then be screened, all of which make up a survey of films explored at the exhibition itself, including princess there there (1935), No exit (1950) year the tree of learning (1969).
The curatorial team also worked with the Los Angeles Department of Education and consulted with an academic advisory committee (which includes contemporary filmmakers such as Burnett, DuVernay, and Shola Lynch along with other academics) to develop a curriculum around the films, which will be fully expressed at a Summit in February.
“We really want to open up film history to inspire conversations, great connections, and hopefully joy and a sense of discovery about film history,” says Berger. “Sometimes that also means expanding the canon. And that’s exactly what Regeneration is trying to do. We are trying to expand the canon of what is known about African-American filmmakers and performance.”
A version of this story first appeared in the August 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here for subscribe.