In January 1942, Lena Horne signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She wasn’t the first Black performer to sign with a major studio, but it was big news, suggesting real change had come to Hollywood. “Lena is ‘different,’” exclaimed one gossip columnist. Another writer optimistically predicted that Horne would “play legitimate roles and not have to do ‘illiterate comedy’ or portray a cook.” Not everyone was onboard, and when Horne showed up on the lot to shoot her first film, MGM’s white hairdressers refused to work with her — Black ones were brought in instead.
Horne appears several times in the exhibition “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” a sweeping show that’s on view at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles. It’s an exhilarating, complicated endeavor that’s at once impressive for the depth of its scholarship and frustrating in how it elides certain blunt truths about the barriers that Black performers and filmmakers faced in the mainstream industry. Long before Ava DuVernay, long before Spike Lee and the successive waves of Black cinema, Black artists made movies both in apartheid Hollywood and in independent companies of their own.
Curated by Doris Berger and Rhea L. Combs, the exhibition is a significant undertaking for the museum, which opened last fall after many delays, and for its parent institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although it likes to focus on individual achievements, the academy is a trade organization, one that represents an industry facing deep existential issues that have become only more pronounced during the pandemic. Theatrical attendance was already in decline before Covid hit, as were the number of viewers tuning into the Oscars. And while the organization continues to diversify its membership in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, the industry as a whole is more resistant.
“Regeneration” is divided into two sections, including an inaugural screening series, a piquant selection that’s nonetheless a disappointingly abbreviated offering, particularly in relation to the expansiveness of the show’s other half. (More programs are promised.) Most of the titles have already screened, but you can still catch two with Sidney Poitier: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950), and Daniel Petrie’s devastating adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), which also stars Ruby Dee. This program concludes at the end of September with a 1970s double bill of Robert L. Goodwin’s “Black Chariot” and Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
The more expansive part of “Regeneration” and what feels like its greater focus will be on view through April 9 in the Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg Gallery on the fourth floor. This part of the exhibition has been thoughtfully divided into seven distinctive galleries that, as you wander from room to room, construct a heroic narrative of difficulty and triumph — though mostly triumph — through a combination of digital and physical displays, including striking works by the artists Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Theaster Gates.
These artworks are scattered throughout the exhibition, and while none were specifically commissioned for this show, their inclusion adds heft, drama and stirring beauty to “Regeneration” as well as, I imagine, artistic legitimacy for at least some attendees who might be skeptical of the very idea of a movie museum. At their best, these works create a productive tension with the cinematic objects; in some cases, they provide the show’s sharpest, most direct and withering commentary on the fraught history that the exhibition presents and, by extension, the very industry that the museum celebrates.
That’s certainly the case in the show’s first room, which greets you with a wall-size video projection of “Something Good — Negro Kiss,” an 1898 film that may be the first screen image of Black American intimacy. (The museum is presenting two known versions of this rarity, which were made at the same time and feature the same vaudeville performers, Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown.) Mounted on an adjoining wall is Ligon’s “Double America 2,” which juxtaposes two versions of the word America.
Taken together, both the film and Ligon’s piece invoke W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous notion of double consciousness in his 1903 opus “The Souls of Black Folk”: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” A sense of doubleness reverberates throughout the show as it continues to chart year after year of bigotry and resistance, institutional repression and artistic sovereignty, struggles that were literally embodied by performers working in old Hollywood and outside its cruelly restrictive gates.
The most powerful room, titled “Early Cinema 1896-1915,” is where the exhibition story comes into lacerating focus. The room is dominated by Walker’s monumental 1995 piece “The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven,” which features a series of black silhouetted figures arranged scroll-like across a long curved wall. It adjoins another wall with vitrines holding photographs of significant figures, including Du Bois and Sojourner Truth. More startlingly, the Walker installation faces the exhibition’s frankest engagement with racism, notably via D.W. Griffith’s virulent epic “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).
All the displays in this gallery — which also includes a poster from a theater production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that featured the Black actor Sam Lucas in the title role — create a fascinating circuitry of gazes: It’s as if Sojourner Truth, Kara Walker et al. were staring down Griffith, a towering, controversial figure in American cinema history who was noticeably marginalized when the museum originally opened. Although the inclusion of “Birth” here is rightly modest, the display does underline the film’s impact when it was first released, most grotesquely in the vitrine with an invitation to a 1915 screening at the White House.
The text accompanying the invitation characterizes “The Birth of a Nation” as propaganda and references Black protests against it, though doesn’t mention that the film also served as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan. The label also accurately asserts that the movie “has been hailed for its technical achievements,” though omits that for much of the 20th century and even into the 21st century, the film was also celebrated as a sublime artistic achievement by generations of scholars and critics, some of whom, I imagine, also waxed equally rhapsodic about the camerawork in “Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi panegyric.
The framing of Griffith in “Regeneration” cuts to a larger, trickier issue that runs throughout the exhibition and that the museum has grappled with since it opened given its twinned institutional role in serving both the general public and the academy. It’s a museum, yes, but of what, for whom and to what end? Most of its exhibition space, for instance, presents video clips and physical items (posters, stills, some famous ruby slippers), not actual movies, an imbalance that’s reflected in the modesty of this show’s initial film series and the brevity of the video clips in its rooms. There are wonderful snippets of the Nicholas Brothers and others, but the films are absent. These may not be rarities, but they’re nonetheless a critical part of this history.
The more complex question involves the museum’s consideration of American cinema as a whole but particularly in how it navigates Hollywood. It’s inspiring to see a wall filled with glossy, glamorous headshots of Black stars like Horne, Paul Robeson, Fredi Washington, Clarence Muse, and others lesser known. Yet while some galleries expand on the uglier parts of what these actors and others faced, like the separate theater entrances for Black moviegoers, the exhibition tends to invoke racism in generalized terms and as a widely understood problem, leaving too many specifics of Hollywood’s foundational role in reproducing that racism to your imagination and the catalog. I can’t wait to read it.