Black film pioneers get their due at the Academy Museum

When documentary filmmaker Madeline Anderson was 12, she knew she wanted to make movies. She also knew she didn’t like the way Hollywood portrayed black people – and decided to do something about it.

A civil rights activist before becoming a filmmaker, Anderson, 94, joined the NAACP youth organization when she was still a teenager in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She made her first documentary in 1960: “Integration Report I”, a 20-minute short film about the struggle for civil rights in Alabama, Washington, DC and Brooklyn in the 1950s. It was the first documentary film produced and directed by a black woman.

Anderson was also considered the first American-born black woman to produce and direct a television documentary, 1970s “I Am Somebody,” about black hospital workers who went on strike for fair wages in Charleston. , South Carolina. long career in public television via the New York public television channel WNET, where she became an editor, screenwriter and producer-director for the series “Black Journal”. She also helped launch WHUT-TV at Howard University, one of the nation’s first black-owned public television stations.

Despite those illustrious credits — as well as a celebration of her work by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2017 — Anderson recalled carrying reels in film boxes around auditoriums. of the church and her children’s schools just to find an initial audience. “Most people don’t even know about me,” she said in a recent conversation from her Brooklyn home.

They will now.

Anderson’s pioneering contributions to film history – and his film “I Am Somebody” – are featured in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” exhibit. The exhibition, which opens August 21 and runs through April, highlights the work of black creators from the early days of filmmaking through the civil rights movement.

A selection of posters for "racing movie" on display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

A selection of posters for “race films” are part of “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

(Joshua White/JW Pictures/© Academy Museum Foundation)

“Regeneration”, the second major temporary exhibition organized by the museum, takes the visitor through seven galleries, tackling themes such as the representation of blacks in early cinema (1897-1915), the era of “race films “made by black filmmakers for black audiences (1910s-1940s), musical films and stories born out of the civil rights movement.

The galleries include costumes, movie posters, and gems like a tap dance worn by the Nicholas Brothers, one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets, and Lena Horne’s dress from “Stormy Weather.”

The exhibition culminates with films made in 1971 – the same year photographer Gordon Parks’ action film ‘Shaft’, starring Richard Roundtree as Manhattan’s coolest private detective, was screened at the screen. With a budget of just $500,000, “Shaft” grossed around $12 million at the box office, proving that black talent could make big money and ushering in the so-called Blaxploitation era to Hollywood.

So why not start the series in 1971, instead of stopping there? The exhibition’s co-curators — Doris Berger, vice president of curatorial affairs at the Academy Museum, and Rhea Combs, director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery — found themselves more interested in exploring an era little known in independent cinema. in which black artists told their own stories without the influence of racism and Hollywood stereotypes.

The schedule also provides a framework for delving into the first generation of black-owned film distribution companies as well as the inclusion of “the Soundies”, three-minute musical films screened on Panoram machines found in train stations, clubs and other public places. Black performers were usually placed at the end of an eight Soundie reel, but this gave their performances wider exposure than they would get in live shows on the often separate nightclub circuit. “Regeneration” includes a vintage Soundie machine where visitors can view an eight-film reel featuring black performers.

A museum gallery showing images of a black couple kissing and the word "America" and its mirror image.

The introductory gallery to “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

(Joshua White/JW Pictures/© Academy Museum Foundation)

Berger cited the 1898 silent film “Something Good-Negro Kiss” – playing on a loop as the first image a visitor sees – as an early example of a film “featuring the on-screen African-American performance of a dignified manner”. The three-minute film, discovered at USC in 2017, features vaudeville performers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle in a flirtatious courtship. As the exhibit notes, the film depicts perhaps the first on-screen example of African-American intimacy.

Combs said one of the reasons the curators chose to include contributions from the year 1971, instead of stopping just short of it, was to include the work of a lesser-known black filmmaker from Los Angeles. Angeles, Robert Goodwin. His best-known film, “Black Chariot”, about a young man who joins a black nationalist group, came out that year. Although “Black Chariot” is sometimes lumped in with Blaxploitation films, this independent film existed somewhere outside of the commercial wave that turned “Shaft” director Parks and director Melvin Van Peebles (1971’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song “) in Hollywood heavyweights at that time. .

Recognizing independent filmmakers during this particular period, Combs added, helps illustrate that “there was still a vibrant ecosystem of artists coming out of Nope way, if you will, who found and created opportunities for themselves… as well as artists looking beyond the borders of the United States, how they also had to go international for certain opportunities.

Los Angeles director Charles Burnett, 78 (“Killer of Sheep,” “My Brother’s Wedding,” “To Sleep With Anger”), who served on a team of advisers for the exhibit, said he built his own confidence as a black artist. would have been easier if he had known that the rich history of black cinema dates back to 1898. “It opened my eyes – I felt like I had been wronged,” he said. “I would have been a different person if I had understood that.”

A model wearing a glamorous dress.

The costume worn by Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” (1943), from the collection of Greg Schreiner, is on display in the exhibit.

(Joshua White/JW Pictures/©Academy Museum Foundation)

Jacqueline Stewart, President of the Academy Museum, appointed in July from her previous position as the museum’s artistic and programming director, said “Regeneration” has been in development since 2017, but the opening is especially timely. “I think it was really fortuitous that the museum opened when it did. [in September 2021], after the pandemic, after so many delays,” she said. “Social and political contexts have made the value of an institution so much more evident. … We need to talk about these racial stories and the stories of class conflict and labor relations. These are the things that the studio system and Hollywood are dealing with. »

For her part, director Anderson said the film industry has come a long way since she and other black filmmakers hand-delivered their films to churches, schools and segregated theaters to find audiences. She won’t be coming to the opening of the exhibit due to her age and COVID-19 risks, but she’s open to long-distance networks in case Hollywood listens.

“At 94, I’m doing another movie, and it’s a memory movie, and I’m done developing it,” she said. “Now I’m back to where I was 60 years ago – looking for funding.”

“Regeneration: black cinema 1898-1971”

Where: Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. August 23 to April 9
Information: 930-3000

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