Black film pioneers celebrated at Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) presents Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, a landmark exhibition exploring the deeply influential yet often overlooked history and impact of Blacks in American film from cinema’s infancy, as the Hollywood industry matured and the years following the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition, originally organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, will also include a new, unique film series in partnership with the Detroit Film Theatre.

Opened on February 4 and running through June 23, 2024, Regeneration highlights how trailblazing African American artists persisted despite barriers of discrimination and prejudice in order to showcase their talent, tenacity, and commitment to creative expression.

Regeneration features nearly 200 historical items – including photographs, costumes, props, posters – as well as interactive elements specifically designed for this groundbreaking exhibition, all juxtaposed with significant contemporary artworks by artists Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, and Kara Walker. In addition, the show includes objects, newsreels, home movies, excerpts from narrative films and documentaries, and a selection of fully restored, rarely seen films that amplify African American contributions to the history of cinema in the United States.

“We are honored to present Regeneration, a powerful, inspiring and important exhibition that examines the rich and often untold history of Blacks in American cinema,” DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons said. “The exhibition explores the critical roles played by pioneering Black actors, filmmakers, and advocates to shape and influence U.S. cinema and culture in the face of enduring racism and discrimination.”

To complement the exhibition, the acclaimed Detroit Film Theatre – celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024 – will present a specially-curated film series, with more than 20 film events highlighting the show’s spotlight on Black cinema history and representation. The series will include seldom-seen films that date back to the early years of cinema, such as Within Our Gates (1920), The Flying Ace (1926), and Harlem on the Prairie (1937), as well as films with Detroit connections including Eleven P.M. (filmed in Detroit in 1928), and more.

“This critically important presentation chronicles much of what we know on-screen but shares so much more of what happened off screen,” Elliot Wilhelm, DIA Curator of Film, said. “Our community will learn how each generation of these pioneering actors and filmmakers paved the way for the following generation to succeed, and how they served as symbols and advocates for social justice in and beyond Hollywood. The museum’s beautiful Detroit Film Theatre will help share this history further with a wide-ranging film series that ties together the exhibition and Detroit’s own cinema history.”

The exhibition, created and organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, traces the often-untold story of Black identity, representation, and empowerment in filmmaking history. In the first of nine gallery spaces, visitors will see the short film Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898), showing the earliest known on-screen depiction of Black intimacy. The exhibition continues by spotlighting the evolution of Black depictions on screen – from nuanced, secondary roles to early sound films (“soundies”) and all-Black cast musicals, and later to lead characters in mainstream studio showcases, as well as how Black actors and writers used their platforms to fight for social and racial justice.

Among the artifact highlights on view, Regeneration will present home movie excerpts of legendary artists such as Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers; excerpts of films featuring Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Cicely Tyson, and many others.

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