See Long-Lost Artifacts From Early Black Cinema

Now open in Detroit, “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971” showcases nearly 200 rare props, posters, photographs and more

Black and white image of a black man and a black woman kissing
The 1898 silent film Something Good‑Negro Kiss is often described as the earliest known on-screen depiction of Black intimacy.  The National Library of Norway

A new exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts explores the trailblazing Black artists who overcame discrimination and prejudice to make their mark on film history.

Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971,” which previously opened at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2022, features nearly 200 costumes, props, posters, photographs, newsreels, home movies and other artifacts spread throughout nine gallery spaces. The institute’s Detroit Film Theater is also hosting a film series to showcase more than 20 Black movies—including The Flying Ace (1926) and Harlem on the Prairie (1937)—in connection with the exhibition.

The idea for the show was born when co-curator Doris Berger, vice president of curatorial affairs at the Academy Museum, discovered a rich trove of posters and lobby cards connected to Black cinema in the museum’s archives.

Movie poster that says Harlem on the Prairie
Harlem on the Prairie (1937) is one of the films highlighted in the Detroit Film Theater's film series this year. Margaret Herrick Library / Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

“I realized, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much history there that the wider public might not know as much [about],’” she tells the Detroit News’ Erica Hobbs.

When museum-goers first enter the exhibition, they’re greeted by a large projection of Something Good‑Negro Kiss, an 1898 silent film that shows actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown flirting, laughing and kissing. Directed by William Selig, the pioneering short film is known as the “first on-screen depiction of Black intimacy,” writes the Detroit Free Press’ Duante Beddingfield.

Historians thought Something Good‑Negro Kiss had been lost to history. But in 2017, the film’s 19th-century nitrate negative resurfaced. After its discovery, the film was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2018.

Something Good - Negro Kiss (1898) - alternativ versjon

A dress worn by Lena Horne in 1943’s Stormy Weather was similarly challenging to track down. Costumes worn by Black actors tend to be “much more difficult to identify and find than their white counterparts,” says co-curator Rhea L. Combs, director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to the Detroit News.

“They would get repurposed, they would be used elsewhere, just lost to time,” she adds. “So being able to identify this and confirm that it was actually worn by Lena Horne and then to be able to present it, is a real coup when it comes to film history.”

Cab Calloway & Nicholas Brothers - Jumpin' Jive

The exhibition will also showcase the tap shoes worn by Harold and Fayard Nicholas during the “Jumpin’ Jive” dance number in Stormy Weather. The scene shows the brothers performing complex choreography and was filmed in one take.

“It’s more impressive to know that [Harold and Fayard] were self-taught and never had a formal dance lesson in their lives,” said Nicole Nicholas, Fayard Nicholas’ granddaughter, at a media preview of the exhibition, per the Detroit Free Press.

Black and white image showing three people sitting around a desk
A still from the 1939 film Reform School, directed by Leo C. Popkin and starring Louise Beavers Margaret Herrick Library / Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Other artifacts on view include home movies from Josephine Baker and Cab Calloway, which offer an intimate look at Black performers’ private lives. Visitors can learn more about Oscar Micheaux, a Black novelist-turned-filmmaker who created more than 40 movies between 1918 and 1948, and see the Academy Award for Best Actor that Sidney Poitier won for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.

“This critically important presentation chronicles much of what we know on-screen but shares so much more of what happened off-screen,” says Elliot Wilhelm, the institute’s film curator, in a statement.

Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971” is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through June 23.

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