After years of oblivion, the Oscars museum rehabilitates African-American films in the history of cinema

After years of oblivion, the Oscars museum rehabilitates African-American films in the history of cinema


The exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 looks back at key moments in the little-known history of black American cinema at the Oscars museum. It focuses in particular on the hundreds of independent feature films made until the 1960s with African-American actors for an African-American audience, called “race films”, when racial segregation was still in effect in theaters.

“Are you ready to hear this secret? That we black people have always been present in American cinema, from the start”launches the director Ava DuVernay, during a press conference dedicated to the exhibition. “Present not as caricatures or stereotypes but as creators, producers, pioneers and enthusiastic spectators”she adds. “We should have shown this long before.”

Regeneration is the second major temporary exhibition at the Oscar-winning Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum, which has come under heavy criticism in recent years for its lack of diversity. putting Shedding light on these works largely ignored by major Hollywood studios and audiences of the time, it opens with a recently rediscovered 1898 reel showing two black vaudeville actors embracing.

Among the exhibits are jumbled together: the Oscar of Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win the prestigious best actor statuette in 1964 for Field Lilythe tap dances of the dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers or a costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr in the film Porgy and Bess.

“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 to explore the archives of the Academy, explains to AFP the curator, Doris Berger. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we know 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 Prairiehorror comedy Mr. Washington goes to town or the gangster feature film dark manhattan. But many “race films” of which only promotional posters remain have been lost forever.

When Hollywood offered black actors of the time supporting roles in “butlers and ‘mamas’ [nourrice noire, souvent esclave, des riches familles blanches américaines, NDLR]this type of independent films offered them roles “of lawyers, doctors, nurses and cowboys”notes Doris Berger. “That’s the proof [qu’Hollywood] could have been much more diverse and exciting”, she adds.

The end of the exhibition focuses on the rise of the “blaxploitation”, a genre of the 70s which put African-American actors in the forefront, launched by the black director Melvin Van Peebles, who died a few months before the coup. of sending Regenerationjust like Sidney Poitier.

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.

Beyond informing the general public about “race films”, Regeneration also has the merit of having challenged certain black American directors.“If I had known – about the actresses and all that – I would have had a completely different vision and approach to cinema”says director Charles Burnett. “This work had to happen. It is long overdue. This is important and essential work, abounds Ana DuVernay. This exhibition highlights the generations of black artists whose footsteps we follow.”

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