Tuesday, October 5, 2021

The Academy Museum, Take Two: A Salute to Diversity

Part of the mandate of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is to present to the public the breadth of the film community. It’s a very 21st century mission: to try to overcome past industry biases by focusing with particular intensity on the contributions of filmmakers outside the mainstream. Of course a lot of attention is still being paid to the Hollywood status quo, and I’m sure many moviemakers continue to feel slighted. 

Yes, the big boys and the big studio movies are very much in the spotlight. For instance, the fingerprints of Steven Spielberg are everywhere (in the E.T. image, the Indiana Jones video tribute, the Close Encounters clip, and Bruce the shark leering at visitors from over the bank of escalators). But that makes total sense when you think of Spielberg as a major museum donor as well as a favorite of most of today’s movie fans. I’m certain my longtime film industry boss, B-movie maven Roger Corman, was not nearly so generous when it came to opening his wallet. Which may help explain why none of the museum’s galleries is dedicated to the art of making genre movies on a shoestring budget.

 That being said, the Academy has gone out of its way to tip its hat toward filmmakers of color. An introductory Stories of Cinema gallery on the 2nd floor is divided into five sections. The first introduces 1941’s legendary Citizen Kane in terms of its origins and production. Right next door is a space dedicated to a very different movie, a small ethnic delight from 2002 called Real Women Have Curves. Starring a young America Ferrera, it’s the tale of an East L.A. teenager grappling with her weight and her Latina identity. Her mother is played by screen veteran Lupe Ontiveros, whose death raised hackles at the 2013 Oscar ceremony when her photo was left out of the annual salute to “those we’ve lost.”

 Next to a salute to editor Thelma Schoonmaker is a space devoted to Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering Black filmmaker (1884-1951) who was the first African American to make a feature-length motion picture. Micheaux is credited on about 40 independent productions, all of them featuring Black actors in stories geared to attracting “colored” audiences. His section of the museum backs onto a lively tribute to Bruce Lee, who brought Chinese martial arts traditions onto the world’s screens.

 A much longer and more comprehensive treatment is given to the incomparable Spike Lee, one of the most inventive filmmakers at work today. Lee is a life-long collector of movie memorabilia, and his large section boasts posters autographed by many of his movie heroes, foreign and domestic, as well as items reflecting his own body of work. Most interesting to me: film clips showcasing how mainstream movies from the past—everything from The Third Man to Night of the Hunter to Bye, Bye Birdie—have had an impact on his own directorial choices. And there’s the ultra-cool purple and gold suit he wore to honor the late Kobe Bryant while picking up his first Academy Award (for adapted screenplay) at the 2020 Oscar ceremony.

 In the all-inclusive spirit of the Academy Museum, I just watched Daughters of the Dust, a 1991 indie by a Black and female auteur, Julie Dash. It’s an inventive tale of the Gullah people, descendants of African slaves, living on an island off the Carolina coast. I admit I couldn’t always follow the complicated family story, but the film is mesmerizing to look at, as well as beautifully acted, and American cinema would be poorer without it.



  1. Thank you so much for this loud “shout out” on behalf of all those magnificent artists (Robson, Horne, etc.) who were either minimized, segregated or totally overlooked during the first century of motion pictures. The more voices like yours the more likely this error will be corrected. Bob. PS LOVE Spike, we’re both Brooklyn boys, though he has monumental talent and I have none.

  2. No talent? Well, you're very good at writing nice comments!

  3. I only write what’s true. Am reading Marc Elliot’s biography of Nicholson and he has lots of good things to say about your main man, Roger. I promise I’ll get to your bio soon, I swear. Stay Safe. Stay Healthy. Bob

  4. Jack Nicholson is definitely a Corman fan, one who remembers back to how Roger jumpstarted his career.

  5. True, Nicholson is a huge Corman fan while still being honest about both good films and bad. The part that was new to me was that Nicholson wrote screenplays for Roger, I never knew that, just as I never knew the mother/sister deception. Right now I’m reading about Nicholson, Goldman (Which Lie Did I Tell You?) Woody Allens autobiography (had to overcome personal resistance due to the accusations) and Lumet’s Making Movies. Guess who inspired me to board this illuminating journey? Appreciate it after every revelation. Bob.

  6. I mentioned that I am reading all of your Blog Posts. Today I got up to October, 2015 and you were writing that the NY musical theater has been adopting movie musicals, proudly mentioning your son, Jeff Bienstock. You know I grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn. Rented the first floor of a two family home on East 10th Street. Who owned the house? Moe & Lillian Bienstock! Great people. Maybe your husband’s relatives used to collect rent from my parents. How super cool would that be? Best to you and whole family. Bob.