Knowing the extensive history of U.S. Black filmmakers since cinema’s beginning could have changed everything for legendary director Charles Burnett.
“I didn’t know about this,” Burnett said at an Aug. 17 exhibition preview at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. “If I knew about this— about the actresses and things like that— I would have had a different whole notion and probably approach to film.”
Opening on Aug. 21 at the Academy Museum, Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1890-1971 traces the achievements and challenges of Black filmmakers in the U.S. in the studio system and independent production and in front of and behind the camera. It will be on view until April 9.
The exhibition encompasses rarely seen excerpts of films, documentaries, newsreels and home movies, which ultimately first kicked off its development in 2017.
“It started in our archives at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences where we hold a collection of so-called ‘race films,’ which are independent films often made by Black filmmakers, but made with an all black cast or, in particular, Black audiences in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s,” co-curator and vice president of curatorial affairs Doris Berger explained over Zoom to LA Confidential. “We found this treasure trove of posters and lobby cards, and that sparked the idea for the exhibition.”
Berger co-curated the exhibition with Rhea L. Combs, director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. As soon as the two started having conversations about a possible exhibit, it was clear what they had could be more than just an exhibition tied to the early 20th century. They ended up embarking on an archival research dive that took them across the country and overseas to France and Germany.
“We are showcasing not just known celebrities or known Hollywood figures like Hattie McDaniel or Lena Horne, but also really acknowledging and recognizing artists and filmmakers and musicians and actors who are maybe lesser known,” Combs said. “[We] acknowledge that there was a wide variety of participation in front of and behind the camera for many, many years— that it's not something that's a recent phenomenon.”
In addition to never-before-seen items, Regeneration also features historical photographs, costumes, props, posters, contemporary artworks and augmented reality elements.
Given the magnitude of Regeneration, Berger and Combs came to be supported by a team that included J. Raúl Guzmán, assistant curator at the Academy Museum; research assistants Manouchka Kelly Labouba and Emily Rauber Rodriguez and an advisory group of distinguished scholars, curators and filmmakers, which included Burnett and Ava DuVernay, among others.
“Are you ready for the secret that we Black folks have always been present in American film right from the start? Present not as caricatures and stereotypes, but as creators and producers and innovators and eager audiences,” DuVernay said at the exhibit preview. “For the first time, we can now see the grand sweep of Black American filmmaking in cinematic artistry, and all its richness and daring and all its defiance and exuberance. We should have seen it long before now, but this is the day we do.”
Entrance to Regeneration begins with two versions of a clip from Something Good— Negro Kiss (1898). Before visitors really dive into the galleries, they witness one of the earliest instances of an on-screen performance of affection by Black actors.
“We wanted to prompt with powerful, positive imagery that existed in 1898,” Berger explained.
The name of the exhibition derives from a 1923 film called Regeneration. However, more than just an included artifact, the title choice also serves as a mission statement.
“It's one of the films that has not survived in full,” Berger said. “It became a metaphor that showed us there's still so much out there that needs to be brought back into light, back into our consciousness.”
What’s more, Combs pointed out, the exhibition works to generate thoughts and questions around what else is out there that we don’t know about.
“It also provides us an opportunity to really acknowledge and recognize that in this country, there are these these narratives— these master narratives, if you will— that have been brought to the foreground, [but] this show will remind us that there is always more to the story,” Combs said. “There are other ways in which people have been creative and dedicated to creating stories that are central to their experiences. And that crosses cultural backgrounds.”
“We're using this particular sort of dynamic history of African American cultural production, to kind of remind folks that there are just so many ways in which we can better understand the the sort of vast stories that represent a makeup American history,” Combs added.
Regeneration is more than just a standalone exhibition and also has a substantial amount of added programming. It includes high school curriculum, a dedicated website, a catalog and a series of film screenings that will continue through 2023.
“At this museum, we honor the richness and complexity of movies by telling the many stories of cinema, telling these stories inclusively, vividly and in many ways so that our audiences have many points of entry to a deeper understanding of the art of film,” said Academy Museum President Jacqueline Stewart. “Nothing less than this comprehensive initiative across many departments of the academy museum could do justice to Regeneration.”
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is located at 6067 Wilshire Blvd 90036 and can be reached at 323.930.3000. Ticket reservations are open on its website.
Photography by: Photo by Joshua White, JW Pictures for the Academy Museum Foundation