At the Academy Museum, a resurrection of Black film history

A man pleads. The woman refuses. He implores again, only to be rebuffed. Now he’s down on his knees, to her miffed indifference. Finally, he steals the kiss he’s been asking for, gets playfully pushed away and the give-and-take continues: flirtatious, sensuous, uninhibited.

The scene is from “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” a film made in 1898 starring vaudeville luminaries Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. But this isn’t the clip that resurfaced at the University of Southern California in 2017. Unlike that 19-second fragment, this version of “Something Good — Negro Kiss” — identified at the National Library of Norway soon after the USC discovery — is more than twice as long.

At 48 seconds, it also includes more dramatic action, emotional tectonics and nuances to un-tease. Which makes it altogether fitting that both iterations of “Something Good — Negro Kiss” greet visitors to “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” a retrospective of Black filmmaking that opened recently at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The exhibit, which runs through April 9, traces a history beginning at the dawn of cinema through the civil rights and Blaxploitation eras. Centered around film clips, artifacts and photos of famous and not-so-famous Black filmmakers and actors, “Regeneration” could be interpreted as an exercise in double consciousness, the term author W.E.B. Du Bois coined to describe the cognitive dissonance African Americans were forced to adopt in a society they were both inextricably bound up with and violently excluded from.

DuBois’s sense of “two unreconciled strivings” clearly pervaded the dominant narrative form of that society as it entered the 20th century, when African Americans eagerly embraced emerging photographic technologies as a chance to tell their stories and celebrate their humanity, even as White popular culture profited from images of their denigration. Depending on which not-quite-mirror version you’re watching, “Something Good — Negro Kiss” can be read in a number of ways: as a prototypical romcom or tense drama of consent; as a fight or a dance; as an act of assimilation or pointedly specific celebration of Black beauty and joy. The multiplicity of interpretations is encouraged by the only other piece that appears with it in “Regeneration’s” first gallery: Glenn Ligon’s sculpture “Double America 2,” whose neon text reading “America” provides yet another opportunity to prioritize complex ideas over simplistic ones.

All seven galleries of “Regeneration” seem to be animated by similar tensions. Throughout the exhibit, viewers learn how Black artists have navigated a medium that wasn’t created for their expressive needs — in fact, it was as often deployed in direct opposition to them. Nonetheless, it was a medium they were eager to master, for their own viewing pleasure and to claim their rightful social space as subjects worthy of the spotlight, literal and figurative.

That duality — pure entertainment versus political and social empowerment — clearly informed the conception of “Regeneration,” which was co-curated by Academy Museum vice president of curatorial affairs Doris Berger and National Portrait Gallery director of curatorial affairs Rhea L. Combs. Some of the most potent displays include clips from “race films” — movies made expressly for Black audiences — that were traveling the country at the same time that D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 screed “The Birth of a Nation” was becoming a box office hit (a vitrine of artifacts includes an invitation to the famous White House screening where then-president Woodrow Wilson was said to have compared the film to “writing history with lightning”). In the exhibition’s black-box projection space, clips from “lost films” play, reminding viewers that Black filmmakers and viewers were innovating genres like Westerns (“The Bronze Buckaroo,” 1939), gangster pictures (“Dark Manhattan,” 1937) and showbiz fables (“The Duke is Tops, 1938) contemporaneously with their counterparts in White Hollywood. The mini-theater is located next to Gary Simmons’s 2017 piece “Balcony Seating Only,” a re-creation of a segregated theater stairway on which the word “Colored” is emblazoned in white oil paint blurred to look like fading chalk, as if Jim Crow were always on the verge of — but not quite — being gone with the wind. (Works by contemporary artists recur throughout “Regeneration,” which also includes pieces by Kara Walker and Theaster Gates.)

Of course, Black artists also excelled in musicals, many of them migrating from established careers as singers, dancers and instrumentalists. A room dedicated to the relationship between music and cinema is dominated by an outsize portrait of the preternaturally gifted diva Josephine Baker, while a series of “soundies” — precursors to music videos and visual albums — play on a jukebox-like video monitor.

Nowhere is the slippage between the richness of African American artistry and an indifferent American culture more sobering than in a gallery dedicated to “Stars and Icons,” where an entire wall is taken up with headshots of some of the most famous actors of African descent, many of whose legacies endure today. But for every Diahann Carroll or Sammy Davis Jr., there are many more Fredi Washingtons, Daniel Haynes, Diane Sands and Mantan Morelands: groundbreaking performers whose names, when “Regeneration” was first conceived, might otherwise have been forgotten forever.

In seeking to stave off that forgetting, “Regeneration” can occasionally feel more didactic than immersive: Taking advantage of the outstanding restoration work of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, Berger and Combs include a plethora of posters, lobby cards, stills and other cinematic curios that aren’t nearly as interesting as the movies they represent. “Regeneration” begins to lose propulsion in its final two galleries, dedicated to filmmaking during the 1950s and 1960s — when the likes of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte demonstrated how to bridge art and activism — and the 1970s, when figures like Melvin Van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”), William Greaves (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm”) and documentarian Madeline Anderson (“I Am Somebody”) helped usher in a new era of expression and commercial viability.

Luckily, “Regeneration” is bolstered by a handsome catalogue that provides much deeper dives into the groundbreaking artists it celebrates, and the Academy Museum has mounted an impressive program of films that will be shown in its auditorium through Sept. 29. (Last month, the museum presented the world premiere of the newly restored 1939’s “Reform School,” a morality tale starring Louise Beavers as a crusading probation officer that was thought to be lost.)

If “Regeneration” feels thin or perfunctory at times, that’s more a reflection of grim realities than curatorial omission: Film stock has always been notoriously vulnerable to destruction, decay and neglect, a fact that goes double (there’s that word again) for works by Black artists. “Regeneration” is as powerful for its presence as for the absence it obliquely emphasizes. To paraphrase “Nope,” Jordan Peele’s quirky valentine to Black film history that just became a bona fide blockbuster, this long-overdue survey acknowledges a plain but often overlooked fact: When it comes to the most important narrative medium of the 20th century, Black filmmakers always had skin in the game.

“Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” continues at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles through April 9.


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