A rich celebration of the history of Black American filmmaking opened last month at the Academy Museum of Motion pictures. “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” the museum’s second major temporary exhibition, tells the often-overlooked narrative across seven galleries, drawing together newly restored film excerpts, never-before-shown costume drawings and old and rediscovered gems from the world’s archives.
“This work had to happen,” filmmaker Ava DuVernay said at an opening preview of the exhibition, which took place Aug. 21. “It’s overdue. It’s important. It’s crucial work. This exhibition showcases the generations of Black artists on whose shoulders we stand.”
Co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea Combs developed the exhibition over the past five years. Berger, the vice president of curatorial affairs at the Academy Museum, is a resident of Hancock Park. Combs is the director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“This exhibition gives you an insight into a fuller picture of American cinema,” Berger said. “We have a lot of movies in there that maybe many people don’t know about that always existed and that show African American performers in all kinds of roles, not just supporting roles that were often the case in Hollywood.”
Berger found inspiration for “Regeneration” in the archives of the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, which serves as the main repository for the Academy Museum. She came across posters of the independent “race films” of the 1920s and 1930s, now on display in the exhibition, and was intrigued. She reached out to Combs, who was then working at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., about the potential of building out an exhibition.
Film preservation and archival work were crucial to their telling of the story of Black American cinema. Berger and Combs traveled across America, France and Germany to find films considered lost. Berger said the two hardest objects to recover were the 1940s Mills Panoram (a visual jukebox for three-minute musical films) that in the exhibition showcases exclusively Black talent, and the gown worn by actress Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” (1943).
Berger and Combs also worked with an advisory group, including DuVernay and other professors, curators and filmmakers, to ensure a narrative informed by additional scholarship and experience.
“Regeneration” extends further than the exhibition space. The Academy Museum developed an inaugural film series as well as educational programs to complement the exhibition. A curriculum guide and illustrated catalogue provide further teaching about Black cinema.
“Regeneration” will close at the Academy Museum on Sun., April 9.
“I hope people come to see this exhibition and feel the joy and excitement that I felt throughout working on this exhibition and hopefully be inspired, for young filmmakers or in terms of glamour and fashion,” Berger said.
The Academy Museum is at 6067 Wilshire Blvd., academymuseum.org.
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