How pioneering Black filmmakers helped build Hollywood
Here, writer Precious Adesina highlights key moments that shaped it all from LA’s ‘Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971’ exhibition
Wednesday 5 October 2022 By Precious Adesina
Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles explores the multifaceted history behind African American film both in front and behind the screen. Not only does the exhibition peel back the layers on aspects of Black people’s contribution to film, much of which is unknown to the mainstream public, but it also highlights some major Black players within the entertainment industry and how they have transformed cinema into what it is today.
The exhibition initially aimed to showcase works from 1900 to 1970, but curators Doris Berger, vice president of curatorial affairs at the Academy, and Rhea L. Combs, director of curatorial affairs at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, later agreed that restricting themselves to those dates would not give them the freedom they needed to delve deeper. ‘We always knew we wanted to focus on early cinema up until the Blaxploitation era,’ says Combs. The Blaxploitation period predominately references a surge of low-budget independent films in the 1970s made by Black people and intended for a Black audience. ‘Once we had the findings for 1898 and 1971, we felt like it was more exciting to be precise about that,’ Berger adds.
The exhibition begins with a romantic scene from the late 19th century called Something Good – Negro Kiss and ends with films such as Black Chariot by the LA filmmaker Robert L.Goodwin, which is about a young man who joins a militant nationalist group. ‘Something Good became evidence for us to prove that Black participation [in film] predates the 1970s and 1980s,’ says Combs. ‘We chose to stop with 1971, because we wanted to make sure that we didn’t go into the Blaxploitation era, but just right at the cusp of it when the Hollywood industry decided to capitalise off this market.’
A wide range of works in Regeneration examines a fascinating aspect of history. Here, we journey through the four most striking moments, scenes and people from the exhibition.
Something Good – Negro Kiss
Regeneration begins with two versions of the same scene created in 1898 by Selig Polyscope Company, a motion picture firm in Chicago founded two years prior by the film producer William Selig. Both clips depict two well-dressed performers, Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, acting out a romantic moment that is now widely considered one of the first instances of Black American intimacy on screen.
The film archivist Dino Everett at the University of Southern California rediscovered one of the versions of Something Good in 2017, while the National Library of Norway found the second in 2019. Everett’s is a 23-second clip displaying Brown and Suttle swaying in and out of an embrace and kissing, while Norway’s is a 48-second shot showing Suttle’s attempts to court Brown. Brown initially rejects his advances, though they eventually kiss.
Despite thorough research, it is still unknown why Something Good was made. However, it has been reported to have been mocking The Kiss, a film from 1896 directed by the German cinematographer and filmmaker William Heise for the inventor Thomas Edison. What stood out to the curators was how the Black actors were portrayed ‘in dignified ways,’ says Berger.
Max Factor Pancake Makeup in Black
While most of Regeneration presents an uplifting side of Black-American film history, a decision that Combs says was intentional, the curators do not use this as an excuse to avoid the darker sides of the past. Instead, they attempted to provide a new perspective on items and works that often have negative or racist connotations. One noteworthy piece is Max Factor Pancake Makeup, a container from the 1940s used by performers in blackface. While blackface had been around for centuries, minstrel shows where white entertainers would paint their faces to play demeaning portrayals of Black people were particularly popular around the start of the 20th century.
Rather than focusing on this, Regeneration highlights how, during the 1900s, the actor Bert Williams, who is considered one of the most renowned African American performers of his time, also used blackface. Williams encountered many difficulties as a Black actor in a white industry, and the reasoning for his use of blackface has been questioned by many – with him often portrayed as a victim of the time he lived in. ‘When you look at someone like Bert Williams, it’s a very complicated story,’ says Combs. ‘He’s doing this work at a time when there’s rabid racism, and he has limited opportunities.’ Williams performed like this in the theatre and on screen, though he did not do so in mockery of the Black community. ‘Pancake is not the centre of his story. It’s just a part of it.’
After meeting another actor, George Walker, in 1893, the two worked together to create comedy shows. ‘Williams and Walker believed they could portray Negroes better than any white imitators, and to enhance the effect of their performances they took to using burnt cork to blacken up as well,’ wrote American historian David Suisman in an essay in 2003. ‘This imitation of white comedians in blackface caricatured the idea of blackface itself: what could better symbolise the artifice of the minstrel characters than a black man blacking up to play himself?’
From 1940 to 1947, more than 1,800 three-minute music films known as Soundies were projected on coin-operated jukebox-like devices in America. Soundies were a precursor to music videos and allowed many Black musicians and performers to showcase their work outside of nightclubs. For Regeneration, Berger and Combs sourced an original machine from 1939 called a Panoram, which was created by a Chicago-based company called Mills Novelty Company.
Owners of Panorams would place them in taverns, restaurants and cafes for the public to use. Every week they received a set of Soundies with an array of music styles in each reel, including classical jazz and swing. But Soundies, more often than not, had either all Black or all white cast members, influencing how and what was delivered. ‘Machine owners received a reel of eight Soundies, and there would be just one by Black performers at the end,’ says Berger.
Despite how Soundies were originally offered, Combs and Berger have chosen only to exhibit ones that include African American performers. ‘We made a conscious choice on how we show the Soundies,’ says Berger. The Soundies chosen for Regeneration include the singer, dancer and composer Cab Calloway performing the song ‘Minnie The Moocher’, produced in 1942. The original piece sold more than a million copies when it was first recorded in 1931. Another on display is of trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong and his orchestra performing ‘Swingin’ On Nothing’ alongside trombonist George Washington and the jazz vocalist Velma Middleton.
Not all performers included in Regeneration spent all of their lives in America. In the 1920s and 1930s, a number of Black performers left the country to find more satisfying careers in Europe, especially in Paris and Berlin, where the entertainment industry at the time was more welcoming to African American artists. One of the most renowned figures to do this is the American singer, dancer and actor Josephine Baker. She relocated to Paris in 1925 after being invited to the city by the socialite and producer Caroline Dudley to perform in a musical. ‘I just couldn’t stand America, and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris,’ Baker told The Guardian in 1974.
Baker was widely considered one of Europe’s most popular performers in the 1920s. ‘Her fame was built on fantasies of non-Western cultures, and she created an exoticised image of herself through her sexualised dance moves, costumes and characters,’ writes Combs and Berger in the exhibition catalogue. But despite being predominately known for her stage performances, Baker starred in four French feature films and graced the cover of several French magazines. ‘That was something that would not have happened in the United States at that time,’ says Berger. ‘While we don’t want to shy away from the challenges that she experienced in Europe – there was also racism, and she was exoticised to a great extent – she was able to navigate this and use it to create her own persona out of that situation.’