Black representation in cinema takes centre stage in exhibition from Oscars body

'Regeneration' will showcase 73 years of US film and entertainment history in Los Angeles museum

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The history of black artistry in film is the subject of a new exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is run by the body behind the Oscars.

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 — 1971 will present a sprawling collection of film excerpts, newsreels, scripts, costumes and memorabilia spanning seven galleries at the attraction in Los Angeles, California. Some items in the collection are being made available to the public for the very first time.

The exhibition will open on Sunday and run until April next year.

"We have montages, we have a series of films that have been preserved or restored, or were considered lost," co-curator Rhea Combs told ABC7. "So this becomes a rich engaging opportunity for visitors of all ages to explore and learn more about a history that may be lesser known to many."

The exhibition will feature portraits of actresses Ruby Dee and Nina Mae McKinney, as well as musical shorts by performers including Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. It will also include rarities such as the sequined evening dress worn by dancer Lena Horne in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather, as well as a restored copy of the 1939 film Reform School.

“It’s really exciting for us to be able to help expand the conversation around American cinema, essentially, by bringing forward these important contributions by black filmmakers as well as performers and other artisans and technicians,” Combs told Variety.

Left, a costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr in the film 'Porgy and Bess'; right, a costume worn by Lena Horne in the film 'Stormy Weather'. EPA

Combs, who is the director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, has been working with the Academy Museum’s Doris Berger for five years to amass the collection featured.

“I really hope that it creates the opportunity for public dialogue and intergenerational dialogue,” she said. “Yes, it’s entertainment, but it’s also an art form — which is why we wanted to include visual art as well in the exhibition — that has a social force that brings the past with the present.”

The collection also incorporates excerpts from films between 1910 to 1940 produced for black audiences. A segment is also dedicated to vaudevillian actors, including George Walker and Bert Williams.

“We don’t shy away from [blackface], and we recognise that minstrelsy is sort-of a formative part of American performance art, if you will,” Combs told Variety.

“We recognise it as a popular form of artistry, but we also understand that it reinforced many racist stereotypes. And so, we try to complicate that by showcasing someone like Bert Williams who used [blackface], but then leveraged it by allowing himself an opportunity to become one of the most popular performers — but also worked with other African American artists and performers and costume designers. They created their own ecosystem.”

An opening event for the exhibition was held at the Academy Museum on Wednesday. It featured a tap dance performance by the granddaughters of the Nicholas Brothers, Cathie and Nicole, who also go by the Nicholas Sisters.

The event was attended by Netflix chief executive Ted Sarandos, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's former president David Rubin, film producer Janet Yang — and new president of the Academy — as well as Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

“For a long time, the early days of black film history were sidelined,” Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s director and president, said.

“Scholarship in this area was largely unknown to most film fans. And so, I am deeply proud that the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — a premiere destination for film lovers around the world — is now home to Regeneration.”

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Updated: August 19, 2022, 1:58 PM