Curated by the Academy Museum’s Doris Berger and Rhea Combs of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the first-of-its-kind exhibition features seven galleries exploring Black representation in film, from portraits of icons like Ruby Dee and Nina Mae McKinney to home videos of the Nicholas Brothers and Cab Calloway.
“It’s really exciting for us to be able to help expand the conversation around American cinema, essentially, by bringing forward these important contributions by Black filmmakers as well as performers and other artisans and technicians,” Combs tells Variety.
Since 2017, Berger and Combs have been acquiring a vast collection of costumes, scripts, drawings and other historical materials for “Regeneration” by digging through multiple archives at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library and even traveling to Berlin and Paris.
The co-curators located myriad never-before-shown pieces, including a sequined evening gown worn by Lena Horne in 1943’s “Stormy Weather” and a copy of the rediscovered 1939 film “Reform School,” which they restored in time for the exhibition.
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Through “Regeneration,” Berger and Combs aim to capture the nuances of Black performance and film creation from the start of the motion picture industry to the rise of the Blaxploitation era of the early 1970s.
“I really hope that it creates the opportunity for public dialogue and intergenerational dialogue,” Combs says. “Yes, it’s entertainment, but it’s also an art form — which is why we wanted to include visual art as well in the exhibition — that has a social force that brings the past with the present.”
One that got away: a military jacket that Josephine Baker wore while working as a spy for the French Resistance. The garment was in “such bad condition [and] could not be saved,” Berger explains.
They found the item in the south of France. “It was really sad to see that a piece sometimes gets lost to time, and sometimes it’s too late to preserve,” Berger says.
The exhibition opens with two versions of a clip from 1898’s “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” starring Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown in arguably the earliest example of onscreen affection by Black actors.
“Regeneration” covers an expansive and complicated history of Black cinema, featuring rarely seen excerpts of race films — a collection of films from the 1910s to 1940s that were produced for Black audiences — to a section dedicated to vaudeville entertainers like Bert Williams and George W. Walker, both of whom used Blackface during certain points in their careers.
“We don’t shy away from [Blackface], and we recognize that minstrelsy is sort-of a formative part of American performance art, if you will,” Combs explains. “We recognize it as a popular form of artistry, but we also understand that it reinforced many racist stereotypes. And so, we try to complicate that by showcasing someone like Bert Williams who used [Blackface], but then leveraged it by allowing himself an opportunity to become one of the most popular performers — but also worked with other African American artists and performers and costume designers. They created their own ecosystem.”
The Academy Museum hosted an event Wednesday night in celebration of the exhibit’s opening, with a special tap dance performance by the Nicholas Brothers’ granddaughters, Cathie and Nicole (aka the Nicholas Sisters). The duo performed the “Lucky Numbers” routine from “The Black Network,” with a clip of Fayard and Harold Nicholas in the 1936 musical short playing in the background.
Among those in attendance at the opening were Ted Sarandos, Bill Kramer, David Rubin, Janet Yang, Jason George, Symone, Tiffany E. Barber, Edgar Arceneaux, Firooz Zahedi and Beth Rudin DeWoody.
Earlier that day, filmmakers Charles Burnett and Ava DuVernay spoke at a press preview for the exhibition, along with Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart.
“It truly is a thrill to be convening here today to celebrate the long and under-appreciated tradition of Black filmmaking in this country,” Stewart said during the press preview. “For a long time, the early days of Black film history were sidelined. Scholarship in this area was largely unknown to most film fans. And so, I am deeply proud that the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — a premier destination for film lovers around the world — is now home to ‘Regeneration.’”
Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 will run from Aug. 21 to April 9.