In 2017, Doris Berger, head of curatorial affairs at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, was poking around the archives when she came upon the Edward Mapp collection, a cache of 1,200 posters and manuscript materials related to African American film. The discovery was a revelation: posters and lobby cards from films by studios like the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, considered the country’s first all-Black film production house, and the Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation. Growing up in Austria, Berger had never heard of these films, let alone seen their full-color posters. “I was blown away by the imagery of a film noir, or a western, with an all-Black cast,” she says. “I had no idea that existed in the ’40s.”
“Black film,” Berger says, “did not start with Black Panther.”
Since the premiere of the first big-budget blockbuster in America—the virulently racist Birth of a Nation, in 1915—Hollywood has not been a welcoming place for African Americans. Indeed, the posters Berger was looking at came from a time when African American directors and producers, shunned by the mainstream film industry, set out to create their own “separate cinema” in places like Chicago and Atlanta and Kansas City. At a time when African American actors in Hollywood were relegated to roles as mammies and maids, these filmmakers were producing all-Black gangster flicks and romances and musicals and exuberantly trumpeting the shows’ “100 per cent all-star colored casts” to their presumably 100 percent all-Black audiences. Just as schools and pools and diners in the Jim Crow South were separate but unequal, these African American productions—dubbed race films—invariably had lower budgets and lackluster distribution. Which is one reason Berger found it so remarkable that an archive like the Mapp collection could exist.
She reached out to Rhea Combs, a curator of photography and film at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., in the hope of collaborating on an exhibition. (As of press time, the Academy Museum was slated to open this April.) “I knew we needed to have an African American curator on this, and Rhea was at the top of my list,” Berger says. “For an institution coming out of #OscarsSoWhite, not to do it just felt wrong.”
The curators searched for items in archives around the world, including Indiana University’s esteemed Black Film Center/Archive, the first repository of its kind in the country; the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and La Cinémathèque Française in Paris. “We went to the South of France to do a deep dive into Josephine Baker,” says Combs, “and we were finding things that they didn’t even know they had.”
When the joint exhibit opens in 2022, it will mark a windfall archival moment for Los Angeles: two other substantial collections related to African American film have recently arrived in the city. The Getty Research Institute has acquired part of the photo archives of the Johnson Publishing Company—home of Ebony and Jet—which the New York Times called the “most significant collection of photographs depicting African-American life in the 20th century,” and the soon-to-open Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has acquired the Separate Cinema Archive, the largest private collection of African American film memorabilia in the world.
The migration of these film treasures to the epicenter of American film seems fitting, but it was far from inevitable. If, for example, the Johnson Publishing archives had been sold at auction to a private buyer, all those millions of prints and negatives might be in some anonymous rich person’s collection right now, unheralded and unseen. Or if Star Wars director George Lucas had gone with his original building plans, his Museum of Narrative Art might have landed in San Francisco (headquarters of Lucasfilm) or Chicago (hometown of his wife, Mellody Hobson).
But the stars aligned, and Los Angeles is the richer for it. “I can’t think of a better place for something like this to be housed and held,” says Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the Lucas Museum’s director and CEO. It’s a homecoming, of sorts, but given Hollywood’s dismal treatment of African Americans on film, a bittersweet one.
A MOVIE MIRACLE
Many of the items in the Separate Cinema Archive are one of a kind. Some posters are all that remain of the movies themselves, the original nitrate-stock reels having long ago crumbled to dust. In January 2020, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a 300,000-square-foot complex funded by Lucas and devoted to the “universal art of visual storytelling,” secured the archive for a reported $7.5 million. Among its 38,000-plus artifacts are a splashy poster for the 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky (with “gorgeous song-bird” Lena Horne) and a far less splashy one for the 1947 George Washington Carver biopic The Peanut Man (“first colored feature film in glorious natural colors”). There are one sheets for westerns (1939’s The Bronze Buckaroo) and war pictures (Frank Capra’s 1944 The Negro Soldier, which promised “Americas [sic] Joe Louis vs. The Axis”), along with promotional materials for movies about an all-female swing band (1946’s International Sweethearts of Rhythm) and about the perils of trying to pass as white, with lurid titles like I Crossed the Color Line and My Baby Is Black! The collection was assembled over four decades by John Duke Kisch, a film historian who squirreled away the treasures in cabinets and crates in a storage facility in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Ryan Linkof, a curator at the Lucas Museum, is still sorting through thousands of pieces months after they arrived in Los Angeles. He likes the “bold, intoxicating” energy of the posters created for the films of Baker, as well as the collection of glamour portraits of stars like Rex Ingram (the blustering genie in 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad) and Ruby Dee. “There are lots of images of white actors, but it’s much harder to find similar images of Black actors, because the stars weren’t given that kind of royal treatment and the images weren’t produced in the same quantities,” he says. In many of the posters, actors of color, even many of the biggest stars, were literally whitewashed: faces lightened several shades or tinted in off-whites and bright yellows, greens, reds, and oranges. “In some cases, Dorothy Dandridge is entirely a red plane; on another, she’s more of an abstract form,” Linkof says. When these films were sent overseas, some countries chose to keep the stars off the posters entirely.
Such a problematic history will be a challenge for curators, who must contend with movies that have become integral parts of the American cinematic canon as well as those little known outside graduate courses in African American film. “It’s seen as this separate and parallel track that developed alongside mainstream cinema, but the tracks were also really embedded in one another,” says Linkof. “African American filmmaking is American filmmaking.”
If some of the posters rattle or disturb, says Jackson-Dumont, who joined the Lucas Museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so much the better. “The function of any great museum is that we become the sites for a dynamic exchange of ideas,” she says. “They actually catalyze conversations that oftentimes are reserved for the comfort of people that are super familiar with each other. But if museums are anything, they’re places where we can have those conversations, both joyful and uncomfortable.”
Jackson-Dumont believes that movies like the pro-Klan Birth of a Nation, and its posters, should be seen precisely because of the ways they make us squirm—and reflect. “Just to see that Klansman on the horse and to think, What was happening in the world to shape this film?” she says. “Why would someone make a film like this? My favorites are probably the ones that really elicit a certain level of critical social engagement, that make us ask who we are, where we were, and who we want to be.”
LOST TO THE AGES
Few publications pushed harder for recognition of the Black presence in film than Ebony and Jet. From their earliest days (1945 and 1951, respectively), the magazines prominently featured positive images of Black movie stars, intended to both expand and enrich how their readers saw themselves and counter the negative (and often absent) representations of African Americans in the mainstream media. Johnson Publishing magazines were committed to highlighting film actors from the start, with founder John H. Johnson’s inaugural promise to depict the “happier side of Negro life…from Harlem to Hollywood.” Covers featured stars like Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (“Hollywood’s Newest Love Team”) in the 1950s and, more recently, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Inside, readers saw images of everything from Nat King Cole “table-hopping at Ciro’s in Hollywood” to Eartha Kitt playing with her newborn daughter in her Beverly Hills home.
For years, historians worried about what might happen to the Johnson Publishing archive after the collapse of the magazine empire, which had been in decline for years. When the entire photo collection was purchased last year for just under $30 million by the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution, its consortium of buyers committed to splitting the archive between the Getty Research Institute and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Much of it hasn’t been seen in decades, and the collection—a staggering 4.8 million images—will be a boon for historians and film fans alike. For historians, the archive provides an unparalleled look at seven decades of African American history, from the post–World War II era and the civil rights movement to nearly the present day, much of it unchronicled by mainstream media outlets at the time. For film fans, there are thousands of images of stars and lesser-knowns, at home and on sets, who never graced the covers of iconic movie mags such as Photoplay (like Ebony and Jet, a Chicago publication) and Screenland.
Slated to open in February 2022, the Academy Museum exhibit Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971 will feature posters, photographs, costumes and costume designs, and film clips. These items will mingle with the museum’s already substantial collection of African American film artifacts, which includes international versions of posters for movies starring Lena Horne and Paul Robeson, handwritten notes from actor and director Ossie Davis, and a rare poster from the 1921 film The Lure of a Woman, the first Black film produced in Kansas City.
The title Regeneration is a nod to the 1923 silent picture of the same name, a “romance of the South Seas” that, in many ways, exemplifies the story of other race films of its time: created outside the mainstream film industry on a shoestring budget; its “all colored cast” and stars (including Stella Mayo, “sensational colored screen beauty”) proclaimed prominently on posters; and, like so many other pictures of its day, lost to the ages.
The show’s chronological scope begins with the 1898 short Something Good—Negro Kiss, a 29-second film that is believed to be the first on-screen kiss between African American actors. For its end point, the curators chose 1971, the year that Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song hit American theaters. “[Something Good] is the earliest known moving image material that presents Black people as the main characters,” says Combs. “And 1971 marked the beginning of the blaxploitation movement that really took off and resuscitated a fledgling Hollywood industry.”
“We wanted to have as a throughline this notion of how Black presence has been integral to the film industry,” Combs says, “irrespective of whether or not it gets recognized.”