Long before Denzel Washington, Spike Lee or even Sidney Poitier, generations of pioneering and revolutionary black US filmmakers played a key role in shaping early American cinema and dispelling pejorative stereotypes, says a major new Hollywood exhibition.

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, opening at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles on Sunday 21 August, charts key moments in black film history that were either ignored by mainstream Hollywood studios and audiences in their day or have been long forgotten.

Starting with a recently re-discovered 1898 reel of two black vaudeville performers embracing, the exhibition tells the largely unknown history of hundreds of pre-1960s independent movies made with black casts specifically for black audiences, at a time when theatres were racially segregated.

The works unearthed by Regeneration have even surprised leading contemporary black filmmakers

"Are you ready for the secret? That we black folks have always been present in American film, right from the start," said Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, at a press preview this week.

"Present not as caricatures and stereotypes, but as creators and producers and innovators and eager audiences."

She added: "We should have seen it long before now. But this is the day it begins."

The Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Rhea L Combs, who is also the co-curator of Regeneration, and director Ava DuVernay at the press preview

Regeneration is only the second major temporary exhibit to be presented at the Academy Museum, which was opened by the organisation behind the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, last September after years of delays.

It also displays Poitier's historic Oscar - loaned by his widow, from his 1964 Best Actor win for Lilies of the Field - as well as tap shoes worn by the Nicholas Brothers, a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong, and a costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr in Porgy and Bess.

Planning for the exhibition began back in 2016 as curators delved into the Academy's extensive archives and found early promotional posters for the long-lost movies that have now been celebrated.

Sidney Poitier's Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field

"I was surprised because I did not know about these films before we started to work on this exhibition," co-curator Doris Berger told AFP.

"I asked myself 'Why don't we know about this? We should know about this!'

"They are really exciting films and great proof that African-American performers had roles in all characters, and there were many storylines.

"And plus, they just look really cool!"

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures' Vice President of Curatorial Affairs, Doris Berger, who has co-curated Regeneration

Audiences can watch carefully restored footage of these movies, including a Western-musical called Harlem on the Prairie, gangster film Dark Manhattan, and horror-comedy Mr Washington Goes to Town.

Many others have been lost forever, though their posters serve as "a sort of an imprint that they existed," said co-curator Rhea Combs.

While mainstream Hollywood cast black actors at the time as "butlers and mammies, in supporting roles", this independent genre saw minority performers play "lawyers, and doctors, and nurses, and cowboys," said Berger.

"They are really exciting films and great proof that African-American performers had roles in all characters, and there were many storylines"

"So this is proof that (Hollywood) could have been so much richer and more exciting."

The gallery ends with the early 1970s rise of the Blaxploitation genre, pioneered by Melvin Van Peebles who, like Poitier, died months before the exhibition could open.

"I hope that they would be very proud of this exhibition," Combs told AFP.

The cowboy boots worn by Herb Jeffries in Harlem on the Prairie (1937)

The exhibition is a major event for the Academy, which in recent years has had to navigate accusations of a lack of racial diversity in its ranks.

The organisation also faced criticism for a dearth of black Oscar nominees during the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which emerged in 2015.

It has since fulfilled a pledge to double the number of women and minority members by 2020.

Regeneration is only the second major temporary exhibit to be presented at the Academy Museum, which was opened by the organisation behind the Oscars last September after years of delays

In addition to educating the public at large, the works unearthed by Regeneration have even surprised leading contemporary black filmmakers.

"I was more than surprised... I didn't know about this," said director Charles Burnett.

"If I knew about this - about the actresses, and things like that - I would have had a different whole notion and probably approach to film."

The exhibition is a major event for Oscars organiser the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which in recent years has had to navigate accusations of a lack of racial diversity in its ranks

DuVernay added: "This work had to happen. It's overdue. It's important, it's crucial work.

"This exhibition showcases the generations of black artists [on] whose shoulders we stand."

The words of author James Baldwin at the exhibition

Source: AFP

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