The Academy Museum's Regeneration exhibit explores Black Cinema "Regeneration" examines 73 years of film history, from the silent movie days to the rise of the Blaxploitation era.

A new exhibit in LA explores the complicated history of Black Cinema

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Academy Museum in Los Angeles is celebrating key moments in Black cinema from the 1890s to the 1970s, like Hattie McDaniel's acceptance speech at the 1940 Oscars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELECAST OF 12TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

HATTIE MCDANIEL: I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.

RASCOE: McDaniel was the first Black woman to win an Academy Award. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us more about the exhibition titled "Regeneration," which opens today.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The exhibition's seven gallery spaces feature costumes, home movies and a recreated staircase painted with the word colored, like those pointing Black and brown audiences to the balconies of segregated movie theaters back in the day. Josephine Baker sings and dances on camera in the 1920s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPHINE BAKER: (Singing in French).

DEL BARCO: And there are tons of movie clips by legends like Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN CALLED ADAM")

CICELY TYSON: (As Claudia Ferguson) 'Cause I'm more woman than you've ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) I earned that money, 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COTTON COMES TO HARLEM")

CALVIN LOCKHART: (As Deke O'Malley) Are you Black enough to hear me?

DEL BARCO: The showcase begins with a silent film of two vaudeville performers in 1898.

JACQUELINE STEWART: It's the earliest known image of Black people kissing on film.

DEL BARCO: Jacqueline Stewart is the new director and president of the Academy Museum. She says two prints of "Something Good - Negro Kiss" were recently found in USC's film archive and in Norway.

STEWART: 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. And what we see in this footage are two finely dressed Black people showing affection and fun. It's a revelation to see that that early on.

DEL BARCO: For the exhibition, the museum restored a film from 1939 called "Reform School." Unlike her previous subservient roles, Louise Beavers plays a probation officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "REFORM SCHOOL")

LOUISE BEAVERS: (As Mother Barton) It's the truth, and you know it.

DEL BARCO: "Reform School" was one of the many so-called race films produced for Black audiences from the 19-teens to the 1940s. There were cowboy movies, thrillers, action-adventure films and more, say co-curators Doris Berger and Rhea Combs.

DORIS BERGER: We see the richness of Black performers, not just playing mammies and butlers as they were during their time in Hollywood, since they were not afforded full representation at that time. They should have and could have been, as we see in this parallel film history.

RHEA COMBS: I would hope that people are able to take away from this a real sense of possibility.

DEL BARCO: The exhibition includes clips from all-Black musicals and civil rights-era documentaries, all leading to 1971, the year of Melvin Van Peeble's movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and the indie film "Black Chariot," which the museum restored.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Soon the world will know that Black is beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Say it again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Black is beautiful.

DEL BARCO: Stewart says the survey ends just before the rise of Blaxploitation films of the 1970s.

STEWART: Where you had films like "Shaft" and "Super Fly" and the amazing Pam Grier in "Foxy Brown" and "Coffy." So "Regeneration," in many ways, is a pre-history. And it shows us that Black filmmakers were not just working so early on, but that throughout the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era, that there were creative folks who were using film as a medium in the Black freedom struggle.

DEL BARCO: Acclaimed filmmaker Charles Burnett says the 73 years of Black film history is amazing.

CHARLES BURNETT: For me, history started here in this museum, you know, and realizing that we were involved in filmmaking at a really early age. It's about, you know, rediscovering our history in a sense, you know? If I had learned about this earlier, seen this earlier, I wonder what kind of effect it would have had on my filmmaking.

DEL BARCO: Filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who consulted on the exhibition, says this showcase of Black artists is crucial and long overdue.

AVA DUVERNAY: Artists who defied society, who rebelled against norms and notions of who they could and should be, their very presence on screen and behind the camera was an act of revolution.

DEL BARCO: The exhibition also sparks joy. One projected highlight is a scene from the 1943 film "Stormy Weather."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: The Nicholas Brothers tap dance around Cab Calloway's big band. Then they take turns jumping over each other down a stairway, landing in splits. All you can do is watch in amazement and give thanks it was captured on film.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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