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Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 Opens Sunday at Academy Museum

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, a groundbreaking exhibition examining the achievements and challenges of  Black actors and filmmakers since the infancy of the art form, opens Sunday at the Academy Museum.


This week the Buzz got a sneak preview of the fascinating exhibit, “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898-1971,” which opens tomorrow at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

More than five years in the making, this groundbreaking exhibit reveals rare footage and historical perspective, including a recently discovered 1898 onscreen kiss by two vaudevillians that is believed to be the first by African-Americans, typically seen in caricature roles. (The first public movie screening was held in 1895.) The exhibit ends in 1971, a turning point in black film marked by the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”


The exhibit opens with two versions of a clip from “Something Good – Negro Kiss” (1898), showcasing vaudeville performers Saint Suttle (1870-1932) and Gertie Brown (1882-1934) in what curators say appears to be one of the earliest examples of on-screen affection by Black actors. The clip was discovered in 2016 in the US and the other version was recently found in Norway.


Filmmaker Ava DuVernay introduced Regeneration at a press event Wednesday, pointing out, “We black folks have been present in film from the very start. For the first time, we can now see the grand sweep of our contributions, the richness, daring and exuberance.”

The Museum’s recently appointed Director and President, Jacqueline Stewart, added that “Regeneration celebrates the long and under-appreciated traditions of black film. Our galleries tell an in-depth story.” She noted that the exhibition holds special meaning for her, since it was her introduction to the Museum five years ago. Stewart was invited to serve on the advisory board, then joined the museum as Chief Artistic and Programming Officer. In July she was appointed Director and President succeeding Bill Kramer, who left to become the CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Stewart worked with co-curators Doris Berger of the Academy Museum and Rhea L. Combs of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Berger explained that Regeneration was “a comprehensive initiative involving many museum departments.” Combs described “researching, conceptualizing and organizing the material, then working with conservators to document and explore the contributions of black artists, from race films to the mainstream.”


The rich legacy of Black cinema is laid out in seven galleries on the Academy Museum’s fourth floor. It includes excerpts from films that no longer exist in complete form, films seen only by Black audiences in segregated theaters, as well as home movies of Black performers who broke through from the 1920s through the 1950s, how the struggle for freedom from World War II through the Civil Rights movement was reflected on film, and spotlights on five Black directors.


The story of “Regeneration” is told through film clips presented along side artifacts throughout seven galleries.


The exhibition also features the work of contemporary artists. “The End of Uncle Tom and the Gran Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven” (1995) by Kara Walker (b.1969) who work rejects the mainstream narratives of a glorified antebellum South depicted by white filmmakers well into the twentieth century.


The exhibition explores films featuring music, called “soundies” – the three minute precursor to the music video – featuring and all Black cast.


The exhibit draws its title from an independent all-Black-cast movie from 1923.  “‘Regeneration’ seeks to revive lost or forgotten films, filmmakers, and performers for a contemporary audience,” according to the Academy Museum.

There will be dozens of film screenings, including 20 in the first month, selected by the Academy Museum’s Senior Director of Film Programs and the creator of the Black Film Archive. Highlights include “Reform School” (Aug. 25), and a number of double features “The Emperor Jones” starring Paul Robeson and “Princess Tam Tam” starring Josephine Baker (Aug. 27), Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” and “The Duke Is Tops” (Sept. 3) and Melvin Van Peeble’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” with Robert Goodwin’s “Black Chariot” (Sept. 29).

The Academy Museum has created a special website with educational assets, as well as high school curriculum for students and teachers at

Starting at noon on Sunday, the exhibition’s opening day will feature a dance workshop and performances by Nicholas Dance Studio, art-making activities, a curator conversation, and photo opportunities on the black carpet! All workshops are free to attend. Access to Regeneration requires a general admission ticket.  For more information and tickets, click here.

The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It will be on display at the Academy Museum through April 9, 2023.


Buzz Theatre writer Laura Foti Cohen contributed to this story.


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