The passionate embrace and kiss between vaudeville actors Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle lasts just under 30 seconds, but it’s believed to be the first instance of Black intimacy recorded on film dating back to 1898. That’s where the exhibit Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles begins, displaying some of the earliest work by Black actors and cinematographers throughout American history.
Whether through neglect or discrimination, the historical contributions of Black cinema to the tradition of American cinematography has often been sidelined. But the exhibit is the first of its kind that seeks to highlight how Black artists have always played an integral role in the history of film-making. The exhibit got its name from Richard Norman’s 1923 film, Regeneration, a romantic thriller shot in Jacksonville, Florida.
Together, the co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea L Combs have endeavored to encapsulate the prominent movements within Black cinema – loosely defined to be on-screen representations of African Americans by Black actors and film-makers. The seven decades they capture reveal a complex history around the narratives of race in the US.
“This exhibition showcases the generations of Black artists on whose shoulders we stand,” said Ava DuVernay, an acclaimed film-maker, while introducing the exhibit and its organizers. “Their very presence onscreen and behind the camera was an act of revolution, a cultural, political and emotional victory that has echoed through generations.”
Despite the constraints of racial violence and de jure segregation, Black film-makers and actors were striving for more accurate stories that depicted their lives on screen. The exhibition reveals that Black film-makers and actors were critiquing and creating counter narratives to the dominant racist caricatures on-screen.
The ingenuity of Black artists cannot be overstated for those time periods, says Charlene Regester, a film historian and professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“[These films give] you a lens into how African Americans might have seen themselves,” says Regester. “Those artists, subverted those [racist] representations, even if they couldn’t do so overtly, but covertly and subtly.”
Take for example, the work of Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering Black film-maker in the 1920s who produced and directed more than 40 films. His work addressed many socio-political issues affecting the Black community, especially in films such as, The Homesteader (1919), that addressed interracial relationships during a time of censorship.
A few years before, The Birth of a Nation (1914), was a film that was lauded as a technological feat for its time, but explicitly displayed racists and perpetuated stereotypes about African Americans. It was a popular film among white audiences.
Regeneration debuts against a backdrop of national tensions surrounding police violence and the restriction of books by Black authors and ethnic studies inside public schools. The exhibit is complemented by a series of public film screenings through the Academy Museum and comes with a free high school curriculum accessible to educators that can be used in their classrooms.
Combs especially hopes the exhibit is a medium by which young people can look to the past as a way of understanding the present struggle surrounding racial injustice and representation.
“The exhibition folds in historical moments – its social, cultural, histories and experiences,” says Combs. “And that allows us to understand that this is an ongoing and longstanding conversation.”
Jacqueline Stewart, the newly appointed director and president of the Academy Museum, spent years as a professor and cinema scholar specializing in the archival and preservation of Black cinema and silent films. Her classroom is now the public and she hopes to use her unique position to educate a broader audience on the history and practices of film-making and inspire new generations of artists.
“The title Regeneration is not just from a race movie, but it’s about the successive waves of Black film-makers,” Steward said. “Times got hard, but then they kept adding. They kept trying to create a blueprint for the next generation. It’s kind of ebb and flow, two steps forward, one step back.”
One of those contemporary film-makers is Isaac Julian, whose three-channel installation Baltimore is shown parallel to Regeneration. Baltimore is a nod to the “Blaxploitation” work of Melvin Van Peebles of the 1970s that were independent, budget-friendly films by Black artists for Black audiences. For Julian, seeing Regeneration is both an emotional and landmark experience.
“It’s an amazing history of American cinema that’s never been revealed to the public and it’s certainly never been the subject of such a significant exhibition of this kind in the Academy. It marks a particular moment,” he said. “It’s wonderful to come here and to be able to have [the visual arts and Black cinema history] in conversation”