Friday, February 24, 2023

From Uncle Tom to Sweet Sweetback: The Academy Museum’s New Exhibit

As Black History Month winds down, I want to consider the Academy Museum’s new major exhibit. Called “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” it’s slated to run through July 16, and it’s well worth seeing for its insights into how African-American actors and interracial subject matter came to be a part of mainstream Hollywood motion pictures.

 In cinema’s early days, Black characters were exclusively played by white actors in dark makeup. This held true when the characters were evil (the rapists and rapscallions who go after white women in Birth of the Nation are the obvious example). But it also applied when they were sympathetic, as in many early filmed versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The exhibit’s second room, which includes the provocative “Balcony Seating Only” installation, reminds us that Black audiences who chafed at the indignities of segregation once flocked to so-called “race movies.” Films like 1937’s “Harlem on the Prairie,” starring Herb Jeffries, mimicked popular Hollywood genres (for instance, the western and the detective story) but featured all-Black casts.

 It was the advent of the musical that allowed African-American performers to become increasingly popular with white audiences. The exhibit pays tribute to such crossover 1940s talents as the Nicholas Brothers (seen in their fabulous staircase number from Stormy Weather) and the sultry Lena Horne, a great favorite of my parents. Of course some terrific film clips from musicals like Porgy and Bess (1959) and Carmen Jones (1954) are on view. While watching the latter I was thrilled to spot my first teacher, future Kennedy Center honoree Carmen de Lavallade, among the background dancers.

 Some Black musical talents were featured in white films too, but generally in roles that could be snipped out for the Southern market. In this section of the exhibit I learned for the first time about “soundies,” two-minute musical presentations viewable by the Word War II-era public through coin-operated machines located in nightclubs and other gathering spots. The soundie has been called an obvious precursor to today’s music video: at the museum I watched Fats Waller outrageously mugging to “This Joint is Jumpin’” and Cab Calloway extolling the charms of “Minnie the Moocher.”  

 There’s a big jump from the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s to the era when Sidney Poitier played out on screen the tough issues facing African-Americans within the unfolding history of this nation. The exhibit naturally showcases Poitier’s landmark Oscar win for Lilies of the Field, as well as his appearance in such controversial hits as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night (both 1967). Appropriately, visitors can watch the clip of Poitier, his eyes flashing in anger, returning the slap of a bigoted Southern land-baron in the latter film. But this focus on Black stars does not preclude attention to rising Black directors like the gutsy Melvin Van Peebles, whose bold and angry Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) pointed the way toward the so-called blaxploitation era.    

 I realize that exhibits such as this one are constrained by what they can realistically cover. Time and space are not, needless to say, limitless. But I’m curious to know why 1971 was chosen as an ending date for this exhibit. The evolution of the heroic and strait-laced Poitier persona into Shaft and Superfly is surely worth exploring. And I’d love to know about the changing dynamics of audiences who are increasingly ready to root for a Black character more human and more flawed than those Poitier once played. Which, I guess, means a second part to “Regeneration” is much needed. When it opens, I’ll be there.







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