At the Academy Museum, a resurrection of the history of black cinema

A man pleads. The woman refuses. He begs again, only to be rebuffed. Now he is on his knees, faced with her vexed indifference. Finally, he steals the kiss he was asking for, is mischievously pushed away and the comings and goings continue: coquettish, sensual, uninhibited.

The scene is from “Something Good – Negro Kiss”, an 1898 film starring vaudeville luminaries Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. But it’s not the clip which resurfaced at the University of Southern California in 2017. Unlike this 19-second fragment, this version of “Something Good – Negro Kiss” – identified at the National Library of Norway shortly after the USC discovery – is more than twice as long.

At 48 seconds, it also includes more dramatic action, emotional tectonics, and nuances to unravel. Which makes it fitting that both iterations of “Something Good – Negro Kiss” welcome visitors to “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” a retrospective of black cinema that opened recently at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The exhibit, which runs until April 9, traces a story beginning at the dawn of cinema through the Civil Rights and Blaxploitation eras. Centered on film clips, artifacts and photos of famous and less famous black filmmakers and actors, “Regeneration” could be interpreted as an exercise in double consciousness, the term author WEB Du Bois coined to describe the cognitive dissonance that African Americans were forced to adopt in a society to which they were both inextricably bound and from which they were violently excluded.

DuBois’s sense of “two irreconcilable endeavors” clearly permeated the dominant narrative form of that society as the 20th century entered, when African Americans eagerly embraced emerging photographic technologies as a chance to tell their stories and celebrating their humanity, even as white popular culture took advantage of it. from images of their denigration. Depending on which not-quite-mirror version you’re watching, “Something Good—Negro Kiss” can be read a number of ways: as a rom-com or a tense consent drama; like a fight or a dance; as an act of assimilation or a specific celebration of black beauty and joy. The multiplicity of interpretations is encouraged by the only other piece that appears with it in the first gallery of “Regeneration”: Glenn Ligon’s sculpture “Double America 2”, whose neon text reading “America” ​​offers another opportunity to give the priority to complex ideas over simplistic ideas.

The seven galleries of “Regeneration” seem animated by similar tensions. Throughout the exhibition, viewers learn how black artists navigated a medium that was not created for their expressive needs – in fact, it was also often deployed in direct opposition to them. Nevertheless, he was a medium they were eager to master, for their own viewing pleasure and to claim their rightful social space as subjects worth spotlighting, both literally and figuratively.

This duality – pure entertainment versus political and social empowerment – ​​clearly informed the design of “Regeneration”, which was co-organized by the Academy Museum’s vice president of curatorial affairs, Doris Berger, and director of affairs Conservation of the National Portrait Gallery, Rhea L. Combs. Some of the most powerful presentations include excerpts from “racing movies” — films made expressly for black audiences — that roamed the country at the same time as DW Griffith’s racist screed from 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” became a box office hit (a showcase of artifacts includes an invite to the famous White House screening where then-President Woodrow Wilson reportedly likened the film to “writing history with lightning”). In the exhibition’s black box projection space, excerpts from “lost films” play, reminding viewers that black filmmakers and viewers were innovating in genres like westerns (“The Bronze Buckaroo,” 1939 ), images of gangsters (“Dark Manhattan”, 1937) and fables of showbiz (“The Duke is Tops”, 1938) along with their White Hollywood counterparts. The mini-theater is located next to Gary Simmons’ 2017 play ‘Balcony Seating Only’, a recreation of a separate theater staircase on which the word ‘Colorful’ is etched in fuzzy white oil paint to look like faded chalk, as if Jim Crow was still about – but not quite – to be blown away. (Works by contemporary artists recur throughout “Regeneration,” which also includes pieces by Kara Walker and Theaster Gates.)

Of course, black performers also excelled in musicals, with many leaving established careers as singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. A room dedicated to the relationship between music and film is dominated by an oversized portrait of supernatural diva Josephine Baker, while a series of “soundies” – precursors to music videos and visual albums – play on a video monitor jukebox-like.

Nowhere is the slide between the richness of African-American art and an indifferent American culture more sobering than in a gallery dedicated to “stars and icons,” where an entire wall is taken up with portraits of some of the most sobering actors. most famous of African origin, many of whose legacies live on today. But for every Diahann Carroll or Sammy Davis Jr., there are many more Fredi Washingtons, Daniel Haynes, Diane Sands and Mantan Morelands: groundbreaking artists whose names, when “Regeneration” was first conceived, would have otherwise could be forgotten forever.

In seeking to ward off this oversight, “regeneration” can sometimes seem more didactic than immersive: taking advantage of the exceptional restoration work of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Berger and Combs include a plethora of posters, lobby maps, photos, and other cinematic curiosities that aren’t as interesting as the movies they depict. “Regeneration” begins to lose momentum in its last two galleries, devoted to cinema in the 1950s and 1960s – when Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte showed how to bridge art and activism – and the 1970s, when the likes of Melvin Van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”), William Greaves (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm”) and documentarian Madeline Anderson (“I Am Somebody”) helped usher in a new era of expression and commercial viability.

Fortunately, “Regeneration” is backed by a fine catalog that offers much deeper dives into the groundbreaking artists it celebrates, and the Academy Museum has put together an impressive program of films that will screen in its auditorium until September 29. (Last month, the museum presented the world premiere of the newly restored 1939 “Reform School,” a morality tale starring Louise Beavers as a crusading probation officer thought to be lost. .)

If “regeneration” sometimes seems thin or superficial, it’s more a reflection of grim realities than a curatorial omission: the film has always been notoriously vulnerable to destruction, degradation and neglect, a fact that goes twofold (there is still this word) for the works of black artists. “Regeneration” is as powerful by its presence as by the absence that it underlines obliquely. To paraphrase “Nope,” Jordan Peele’s eccentric valentine to the history of black cinema that just became a true blockbuster, this long-awaited investigation acknowledges a simple but often overlooked fact: when it comes to the narrative medium the most important of the 20th century, Black filmmakers have always had skin in the game.

“Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” continues at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles through April 9.

About Debra D. Johnson

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