“Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” looks back on key moments in the little-known history of black American cinema, and in particular on the hundreds of independent feature films made until the 1960s with African-American actors for an African audience. -american, called “race films”, when racial segregation was still in force in theaters. The exhibit, which spotlights these works largely ignored by major Hollywood studios and audiences of the day, opens with a recently rediscovered reel from 1898 showing two black vaudeville actors hugging. Are you ready to hear this secret? That we blacks have always been present in American cinema, from the start, “says director Ava DuVernay, during a press conference.
“Present not as caricatures or stereotypes but as creators, producers, pioneers and enthusiastic spectators,” she adds. “We should have shown this long before. Among the objects on display are jumbled up: the Oscar of Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win the prestigious best actor statuette in 1964 for “Le Lys des champs”, the tap dances of the dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers or another costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr in the movie “Porgy and Bess”.
Lack of representativeness
“I was surprised because I was not aware of the existence of these feature films before starting the preparation” of this retrospective in 2016 and exploring the archives of the Academy, explains to the AFP the exhibition curator, Doris Berger. “I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we know anything about this? We should know,’” she continues.
“These are really gripping films and proof that African-American artists had all kinds of roles and there were lots of different stories.” Audiences can now see the carefully restored images of works such as the musical western “Harlem on the Prairie”, the horror comedy “Mr Washington Goes To Tow” or the gangster feature film “Dark Manhattan”.
The exhibition is part of an effort by the Academy to respond to criticism of its lack of representativeness, embodied by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which in 2015 pointed to the lack of black artists in Oscar nominations. The institution has since doubled the number of women and people from ethnic minorities among its members.