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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.