Public Media Arts Hub

Exhibit chronicles rich history of independent Black cinema


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: Film buffs will frequently cite "Citizen Kane" or "Gone With The Wind" as early classics, but a new exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts seeks to showcase lesser-known Black filmmakers and actors who have a rich history of their

own. Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown : "Regeneration," a silent film released in 1923, was a romance set in the South Seas featuring an all-Black cast. It's just one of more than 500 so-called race films produced for Black audiences between 1915 and 1950.

Rhea Combs, Co-Curator, Regeneration: There was an African American sort of cultural production, folks working in front of and behind the camera that were using the tools of modern technology to create these visual stories.

This is a parallel history that has been overlooked, yet still has been critical to the ways in which we understand film history.

Jeffrey Brown : Co-curators Rhea Combs and Doris Berger uncovered this parallel history of Black film in an exhibit originally presented at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, now at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Covering the first 73 years of Black cinema, the exhibit takes its name from that 1923 silent era film, which survives only in a heavily damaged 11-minute fragment.

Elliot Wilhelm is the DIA's film curator.

Elliot Wilhelm, Film Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts: We can see a portion of what it was, but we can also see, in a physical way, the neglect and the decay that happened to the film. And, in a way, it's a metaphor for what the exhibition is about, the erasure of the past.

Jeffrey Brown : On display, surviving evidence of this overlooked history, documents, costumes, film clips, and vivid posters, like this one for the 1939 film "Reform School."

Doris Berger, Co-Curator, Regeneration: What is really stunning is the actress Louise Beavers is mostly known in Hollywood films in supporting characters.

Hollywood offered Black actors and actresses most often butlers and mammy roles. But, in this film, she's not playing a supporting character, but the main character. She is the star of the film. She is the boss of the prison and would like to see a prison reform, a very topical story to this day.

Louise Beavers, Actress: It means to change from bad to good, to make better morally.

Jeffrey Brown : "Reform School," in fact, was released the same year as two film classics, "Gone With The Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," but it was long believed to be lost.

Now it, along with three others, has been fully restored and is part of Regeneration's accompanying screening series.

Rhea Combs: We can wax poetic about films like "Gone With The Wind," but, at the same time, we had other works taking place like "Reform School."

The films highlight that African American experiences are not a singular story.

Jeffrey Brown : The exhibition does reckon with the pervasive racial stereotypes in early films, including the minstrel performances of Bert Williams, who starred in the unreleased "Lime Kiln Field Day," the earliest surviving feature film with an all-Black cast.

And the exhibit juxtaposes its film artifacts with the work of contemporary artists, here, Kara Walker taking on Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which also became a 1903 film.

Rhea Combs: She is providing us another way to look at this work. she's interrogating it. she's challenging it.

Jeffrey Brown : The early cinema section of Regeneration ends in 1915, the year a technically innovative, but deeply racist film was released.

Danielle Eliska, Filmmaker: Just seeing in person this invitation to the White House for the premiere of "Birth of a Nation" is really emotional for me.

Jeffrey Brown : Danielle Eliska, a Detroit-based filmmaker visiting the exhibition, found inspiration for her own work amid the hard truths of history on display.

Danielle Eliska: But if I could take anything from this particular film is that it has such a wide impact on people and made them do things, and I just think about my own films and how I can utilize my films to -- in a positive way, to impact my people.

Jeffrey Brown : Long ago, the power of films also drew in Madeline Anderson.

Madeline Anderson, Filmmaker: We went to the movies practically every week. And I saw that there was something wrong with this picture. Black people were always presented in pejorative ways. They were always lazy, not too smart, happy to do anything that their masters said.

And, at first, it made me angry. And then it made me sad. And then, as I grew older, it made me want to do something about it.

Jeffrey Brown : And that meant becoming a filmmaker yourself.

Madeline Anderson: Exactly.

Jeffrey Brown : At 96, Anderson is believed to be the only surviving filmmaker featured in Regeneration through her 1970 documentary "I Am Somebody" about Black nurses in South Carolina trying to unionize.

Woman: We want to be recognized, not because of our race, but because we are human beings.

Madeline Anderson: And I myself, being a working mother, Black woman, identified so closely with them. They were my sisters.

Jeffrey Brown : Anderson has made a career working in television and on films.

Madeline Anderson: I wanted to be a filmmaker to show the achievements of Black people, and I also wanted to work in the struggle for equality for my people. And that's what I have done all of my life. I have been an activist filmmaker.

Jeffrey Brown : And she's still at it, about to go into postproduction on a film about her own life.

Rhea Combs: Despite so many structural challenges, people still felt compelled and they still felt inspired to do this work.

Jeffrey Brown : "I Am Somebody" is prominently featured in the final chapter of the exhibit, alongside the likes of Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks.

Taken as a whole, the hope is, this showcase of Black film history up to 1971 will celebrate it in new ways.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.