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I feel like I’m in heaven!” gushed a glowing Ava DuVernay. I overheard the director of 2014’s Civil Rights epic Selma at the August 17 press preview of ​the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971 praising “the first large-scale exhibition… to examine the compellingly rich history of Black participation in American cinema, both inside and outside the Hollywood studio system,” as co-curators Rhea L. Combs and Doris Berger write in their 288-companion book with the same name as the groundbreaking show.

The helmer of 2016’s mass incarceration documentary 13th, and the 2019 Central Park Five film When They See Us, DuVernay issued her rave review of Regeneration ​​​in the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery, immersed in an 11,000-square-foot space that an Academy Museum press release states includes “rarely seen excerpts of films, documentaries, newsreels, and home movies, as well as historical photographs, costumes, props, and posters” chronicling and celebrating more than 70 years of often-ignored yet significant African-American contributions to cinema. The spectacular, sprawling show covers most of the Museum’s fourth floor.

DuVernay, who recorded footage of the cinematic reliquary with her cellphone camera, was one of the introductory speakers at a media event in the Museum’s 288-seat Ted Mann Theater. Others who addressed the press included ​co-curators/co-authors Rhea L. Combs, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Doris Berger, Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at the Academy Museum. Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the fine folks who award the Oscars – was also on hand. Charles Burnett – arguably the most prominent director of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, which aimed to create a Black cinema that was an alternative to Hollywood studio flicks – was interviewed onstage during the well-attended news-conference.

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The almost year-old institution’s​ Director and President, Jacqueline Stewart, who is also a presenter on Turner Classic Movies, was effusive during the hour-plus presser. Stewart, a film historian and academic, is quoted in a Museum press release asserting: “​This landmark exhibition seeks to restore lost chapters of American film history as it elevates the contributions of Black artists to present a more inclusive story. We are incredibly proud to present Regeneration, an exhibition that demonstrates how the Academy Museum shares new scholarship, offers a more expansive vision of American film history, and encourages public dialogue about the past and present of film as an art form and a social force.”

The exhibit, which opened August 21 and runs through ​April 9, 2023, “​will be accompanied by a range of film screenings, including world premieres of films newly restored by the Academy Film Archive,” according to a Museum press release. The in-depth display is full of finds and revelations, for rank-and-file filmgoers and movie historians alike. For instance, the expo is named after a 1923 picture entitled Regeneration, A Romance of the South Seas, produced by the Florida-based Norman Film Manufacturing Company, which was owned by a Caucasian but specialized in features and shorts starring all-Black casts. I’m a historian of South Seas Cinema – movies shot and set in the Pacific Islands, such as Mutiny on the Bounty – and have co-authored three film history books about this genre, yet I’d never, ever heard of Regeneration before the Academy Museum’s exhibit. Only fragments of footage from this long, lost picture still exist, but much to the Museum’s credit, they have been assembled and are screened as part of Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971.

Kudos to the curators, who explain in the introduction to the exposition’s accompanying book, that the silent “race film’s” title inspired the moniker for the exhibition and their catalogue. “As part of our project, we also looked to find and restore lost and forgotten films and ‘regenerate’ them for contemporary audiences,” write Berger and Combs. In big picture terms, Regeneration aims at restoring and rehabilitating the screen image of African Americans, who were frequently disparaged via celluloid stereotypes and malign neglect by Tinseltown’s totem pole, an often- exclusionary casting caste system that relegated Blacks to lesser, often demeaning roles as servants and slaves, if they ever even appeared onscreen at all.

When the 2015 Academy Award nominations were announced, Black productions and talents were so overlooked that Hollywood was criticized by activist April Reign, who tweeted the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite”, which went viral. (Jacqueline Stewart presents an Academy Museum Podcast on this topic.) Amidst this African American underrepresentation exactly a century after D.W. Griffith’s racist Civil War era epic The Birth of a Nation, DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma received Academy recognition with only two Oscar nods: Selma was nominated for Best Picture, while Common and John Legend won the Academy Award for “Glory” in the Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song category. But overall, the Oscars snubbed Blacks that year, inspiring a backlash and soul-searching.

Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971 can arguably be viewed as, so to speak, part of the Academy’s “reparations,” as the white-dominated professional organization and its new Museum grapple with repairing a long legacy of racism. When the Academy Museum opened in September 2021, I pointed out that – along with displaying movie memorabilia such as Dorothy’s original ruby slippers from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the “Rosebud” sled from Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane and the mechanical shark from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws – with galleries devoted to Spike Lee, Oscar Micheaux and more, the Academy seemed to be taking sincere steps towards making amends for a century-plus of motion picture prejudice and tropes.

But the breathtaking beauty and breadth of Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971 takes this to another dimension, to new levels. It is far more than an act of contrition, of liberal white guilt; indeed, the project is a work of film history and art that enhances our knowledge of the movie medium. The exposition exposes the cinematic scope of the Black contribution to and participation in (plus victimization by) the movie industry starting in 1898, with the first extant strip of celluloid depicting African Americans. Upon entering the 11,000-square-foot space the viewer encounters a screening of the Selig Polyscope Company’s Something Good–Negro Kiss, wherein a male and female Black vaudevillean kiss, hug and dance. Interestingly, the well-dressed performers are for more passionate than their white counterparts were in Thomas Edison’s 1896 The Kiss, the very first cinematic smooch.

So right from the get-go, Blacks were depicted as being more sensuous than Caucasians, and in Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the title character (portrayed by Van Peebles) is highly sexualized in the movie that was “X-rated by an all-white jury,” as the writer/ director put it. Sweetback is also a cop killer who goes on the lam after slaying a lawman caught in the act of committing police brutality against a fellow African American. The Black Panther Party praised Van Peebles’ independent film as “revolutionary,” and the 1971 low budget hit that made millions is widely credited with launching “Blaxploitation” movies (although most of them were far less politicized than this radical picture). Clips of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song are in the hall that ends Regeneration: Black Cinema.

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Along the Museum’s top exhibit floor, the arc of African American iconography onscreen from 1898–1971 swings from images of early “race films” to “soundies” (early MTV-like shorts featuring musicians) to luminaries such as Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Bill Robinson, Hattie McDaniel (her Oscar acceptance speech for 1939’s Gone with the Wind is screened), Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Sidney Poitier, Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln and beyond. Lobby cards, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s costume as Sportin’ Life in Otto Preminger’s 1959 Porgy and Bess, a pair of the Nicholas Brothers’ tap shoes and many more iconic artifacts are lovingly displayed. But for this movie historian, what I enjoyed most were film clips from The Emperor Jones, Princess Tam-Tam, Carmen Jones, etc. – which is as it should be at a movie museum.

On a more somber note, there is a staircase marked “Colored” leading towards an imaginary balcony where Blacks were seated in many segregated theaters to remind us of American apartheid. The fact that Hattie McDaniel was seated separately (and unequally) at 1940’s Oscar ceremony where she picked up her golden statuette for portraying Mammy in GWTW is also noted.

During my three-hour peregrination enjoying the capacious galleries, I caught up with Charles Burnett, who along with DuVernay, was part of the exhibition’s advisory committee. The director of 1978’s Killer of Sheep, 1990’s To Sleep with Anger and 2007’s Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation was clearly very moved by Regeneration. “It’s a total surprise how early Black films started,” an astonished Burnett told me. The veteran helmer added that the pioneering independent auteur “Oscar Micheaux was an influence on me.”

Does Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971 redress the legitimate grievances African Americans have with the film industry and their screen portrayals? As a Caucasian it’s not for me to say, but two leading lights of Black filmmaking, DuVernay and Burnett, genuinely seemed impressed and touched by the extensive exhibition, as does the esteemed Jacqueline Stewart. I will venture forth and profess that as a film historian and critic, it is a major undertaking going forward, in the right direction. So much so that one can imagine MAGA racists and other white supremacists deriding the expo as “#OscarsSoWoke.” But along with the first Black August Film Festival at Pasadena, it does seem that we’re experiencing progress in terms of more accurate, authentic representation and rendering of the African American screen image. In the artistic realm, self-determination means the self – not outsiders – decide how one is presented to the world, and there was obviously lots of Black input in this enterprise.

Portrait of Josephine Baker. Photo by adoc--photosCorbis via Getty Images
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The Academy and its Museum are also making strides on other ethnic fronts in an effort to, among other things, heal wounds and to apologize for historic wrongs. According to a press release, the Museum is holding “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, a very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration with Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/AZ) on September 17, 2022. In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, became the first Native woman to stand onstage at the Academy Awards® ceremony, on behalf of Marlon Brando. At his request, Littlefeather did not accept Brando’s Best Actor award for The Godfather and gave a passionate 60-second speech regarding the stereotypes of Native Americans in the entertainment industry. She also brought attention to the 1973 Wounded Knee protest in South Dakota. This moment resulted in her being professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against for the last 50 years.”

These apologies call to mind the Academy’s efforts to right the wrongs of the Hollywood Blacklist, with live events and ensuring blacklisted talents often working under false or others’ names finally received recognition for the Oscars they had earned. (It remains to be seen whether the Academy and its Museum will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Blacklist on October 27, 2022…)

The stunning, lavishly illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibit that is likewise named Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971 includes interviews with DuVernay, Burnett, his L.A. Rebellion colleague Julie Dash (1991’s Daughters of the Dust) and Barry Jenkins, who co-won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2016’s Moonlight, which scored the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ambitious program also includes screenings (some of them double features) in the Ted Mann Theater that cover much of the same period that’s chronicled by the exhibition. The film series was launched ​August 25 with the world-premiere of a new restoration by the Academy Film Archive of 1939’s Reform School starring Louise Beavers, which was previously believed to be lost. Other highlights include: The Norman Film Manufacturing Company’s 1926 silent movie The Flying Ace; Paul Robeson, unforgettable as the title character in Eugene O’Neill’s 1933’s The Emperor Jones; Oscar Micheaux’s 1935 Murder in Harlem; 1943’s Stormy Weather with Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller and those showstopping, tapdancing sensations the Nicholas Brothers; Richard Wright stars as Bigger Thomas in a 1951 screen adaptation of his novel Native Son; Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan co-star in the 1959 caper flick Odds Against Tomorrow; Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in the 1961 film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln in 1964’s powerful Nothing But a Man; and the grand finale is Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

With a major museum installation, book and film series, Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971 may not rectify all the racist wrongs perpetrated by the motion picture industry, but to paraphrase the title of an Ava DuVernay film, it is certainly a movie milestone in ensuring that from now on, America “will see” Blacks, on- and offscreen.

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