Academy Museum Explores Black Cinema’s Early Years

A new exhibition spotlights how Black artists shaped American filmmaking from 1898 to 1971

A screening room at the Academy Museum showcases a variety of films
“Regeneration,” the groundbreaking new exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, showcases never-before-seen films. Joshua White, JW Pictures / Academy Museum Foundation

The gown Lena Horne wore in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather. The Nicholas Brothers’ tap-dancing shoes. One of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets. All these items are on display at “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971,” the second major temporary exhibition at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened last year.

Through film clips, costumes, props, photographs and posters, “Regeneration” celebrates Black trailblazers—both behind and in front of the camera—who have too often not gotten their due. The museum is also hosting over 20 screenings, which will show titles ranging from Oscar Micheaux’s silent films to movies featuring the likes of Josephine Baker and Sidney Poitier.

The first image visitors encounter when they enter the exhibition is the 1898 silent film Something Good-Negro Kiss playing on a loop. Running just three minutes, the movie shows vaudeville performers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle as they flirt and kiss. It’s one of the earliest examples of Black actors kissing on film, per a statement from the museum.

Two vaudeville performers kiss in Something Good-Negro Kiss
Smething Good-Negro Kiss features one of the first kisses between two Black people on film. Joshua White, JW Pictures / Academy Museum Foundation

“During that era, there are earlier images of Black folks, and they are stealing chickens and eating watermelon and getting smoked out of their cabins. And stereotyping that came from the minstrel tradition,” Jacqueline Stewart, the Academy Museum’s director and president, tells NPR’s Mandalit del Barco. “And what we see in this footage are two finely dressed Black people showing affection and fun. And it’s a revelation to see that that early on.”

The screenings will kick off this evening with Reform School, a 1939 film featuring Louise Beavers as a probation officer. The museum will be showing a restored version of the film, which had previously been considered “lost.”

Film posters on display at Regeneration
The museum will host over 20 screenings of films mentioned in the exhibition. Joshua White, JW Pictures / Academy Museum Foundation

“Regeneration” is a double entendre, co-curator Rhea Combs tells the Hollywood Reporter’s Evan Nicole Brown. The title comes from Richard Norman’s 1923 romantic thriller of the same name; it is also a word that describes how creativity begets creativity.

“This idea of regeneration is one that I think we not only found inspiration through a literal ‘race film’ title with that name but also this idea of creativity fueling other creative opportunities,” Combs tells the Hollywood Reporter. “That is another reason why we incorporate visual art with film art—to make sure that we are recognizing that these are porous ideas, and that people are inspired by a variety of different artistic endeavors.”

Those porous ideas cross generations, which is why Combs and co-curator Doris Berger interviewed contemporary filmmakers—including Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins and Dawn Porter—as they put together the exhibition, per the Hollywood Reporter. DuVernay, acclaimed director of films including Selma and 13th, introduced the exhibition when it opened last week, reports the Guardian’s Jireh Deng.

“This exhibition showcases the generations of Black artists on whose shoulders we stand,” DuVernay said. “Their very presence onscreen and behind the camera was an act of revolution, a cultural, political and emotional victory that has echoed through generations.”

Costumes on display at Regeneration
“Their very presence onscreen and behind the camera was an act of revolution,” says filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Joshua White, JW Pictures / Academy Museum Foundation

Younger film lovers will soon have the chance to experience “Regeneration” in their classrooms. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the exhibition’s curators have collaborated with Los Angeles’ education department to create a curriculum exploring Black cinematic history, which the museum will share online in the coming days. 

Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971” is on view at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures through April 9, 2023.

Editor's note, August 26, 2022: This story has been edited to correct information about when the curriculum will be available.