Breaking the Frame: ‘Regeneration’ Exhibit Puts Black Cinema Center Stage at Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has a new groundbreaking exhibition titled “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” offering a profound exploration into the often-overlooked history and influence of Blacks in American film. Running from February 4 to June 23, 2024, this landmark exhibit is organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and promises to shed light on the resilience and impact of African American artists in the face of discrimination and prejudice.

This extraordinary exhibition, meticulously crafted over a five-year span, was curated by the dynamic team led by Doris Berger, Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at the Academy Museum, and Rhea L. Combs, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The dedicated efforts of former Assistant Curator J. Raul Guzman, along with Curatorial Assistants Emily Rauber-Rodriguez and Manouchka Kelly Labouba from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, provided invaluable support in bringing this showcase to fruition.

“The heart and soul of this exhibition lays beyond the walls of the Academy Museum or here at the DIA,” said Combs. “This is a living history that needs to be seen, shared and remembered for generations to come. I am so proud of everybody who contributed to this project and have made it so impactful.”

DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons expressed his enthusiasm for presenting “Regeneration,” emphasizing its importance in examining the overlooked archives of Blacks in American cinema. The exhibition features nearly 200 historical items, including photographs, costumes, props, and posters, along with interactive elements designed exclusively for this unique display.

“We are honored to present Regeneration, a powerful, inspiring and important exhibition that examines the rich and often untold history of Blacks in American cinema,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “The exhibition explores the critical roles played by pioneering Black actors, filmmakers, and advocates to shape and influence U.S. cinema and culture in the face of enduring racism and discrimination.”

The opening reception ceremony infused a crucial layer into the historical narrative and significance of the pieces showcased. Despite their immense talent and contributions, many key figures in the Black cinema renaissance faced persistent inequalities. At the event, the granddaughters of The Nicholas Brothers, known as The Nicholas Sisters, not only showcased their exceptional tap-dancing skills but also illuminated the extraordinary contributions of their grandfathers, a focal point of the exhibition.

Included in the showcase is the iconic “Jumping Jive” sequence by The Nicholas Brothers, a collaborative masterpiece with Cab Calloway featured in the film “Stormy Weather.” Notably, the legendary Nicholas Brothers’ dance routine was unrehearsed and captured in one take, adding an unprecedented and remarkable dimension to the story. The presence of The Nicholas Sisters at the ceremony underscored the enduring impact of their grandfathers’ contributions to Black cinema, highlighting both the artistry and resilience of these trailblazing performers.

“They created in a time when staying in hotels was denied to them, despite their names gracing marquees and their concerts selling out,” said the Nicholas Sisters. “Their performances were excluded from films screened in theaters in the South. Faced with limited opportunities and the recognition they deserved, they relocated to Europe with their families, seeking more welcoming environments. This remarkable exhibit celebrates the many roles played by artists like them, defining societal narratives within these films and showcases the richness of black performers, highlighting their complexities and full humanity. Their very presence impacted a revolution and a cultural victory, that has echoed across generations and hopefully will make more to come with partnerships like this.”

What sets “Regeneration” apart is its integration of contemporary artworks by renowned artists like Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, and Kara Walker, providing a fresh perspective on the historical context of the exhibition. The juxtaposition of these artworks with historical artifacts creates a powerful narrative that resonates with the struggles and triumphs of African American artists in the film industry.

Amazon, a key contributor to the exhibit, has played a significant role in ensuring community access to the arts and creative initiatives in Metro Detroit, especially among youth and low-income groups. Their support underscores the commitment of major corporations to fostering inclusivity and diversity in cultural expressions.

“We are thrilled to be part of this incredible exhibition, ensuring that the entire community has free access to enjoy and engage with the rich history and stories presented,” said Ian Conyers, Amazon’s Head of Community. “At Amazon, our commitment is not just about financial support; it’s about creating opportunities for local residents to see themselves reflected in the exhibit and connect with the profound history of our community. We want everyone to have the chance to appreciate and celebrate the diverse contributions showcased. It’s about fostering inclusivity and cultural representation. We look forward to the impact this exhibit will have on our local community and are excited to support initiatives that resonate with the essence of our shared history and identity.”

The “Regeneration” exhibition, offering a comprehensive narrative of Black identity, representation, and empowerment in filmmaking, unfolds across nine gallery spaces. It begins with “Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898),” the earliest known on-screen depiction of Black intimacy, and progresses to highlight the evolution of Black depictions on screen. The exhibit showcases the journey from nuanced secondary roles to early sound films and all-Black cast musicals, ultimately culminating in lead characters in mainstream studio showcases.

As visitors explore the various artifacts and historical items on display, they will witness the rich contributions of legendary artists such as Josephine Baker, the Nicholas Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Cicely Tyson, and many others. “Regeneration” not only honors these trailblazers but also invites reflection on the broader implications of their work in the ongoing fight for social and racial justice.

In addition to the exhibition, the Detroit Film Theatre, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024, will host a specially-curated film series to complement “Regeneration.” Over 20 film events will highlight the exhibition’s focus on Black cinema history and representation, featuring seldom-seen films dating back to the early years of cinema. Notable titles include “Within Our Gates” (1920), “The Flying Ace” (1926), and “Harlem on the Prairie” (1937), as well as films with Detroit connections, such as “Eleven P.M.” (1928).

Elliot Wilhelm, DIA Curator of Film, emphasized the significance of the exhibition in chronicling both on-screen and off-screen aspects of Black cinema history. The film series aims to deepen the understanding of how pioneering actors and filmmakers paved the way for future generations, serving as symbols and advocates for social justice within and beyond Hollywood.

The opening of the “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts marks a significant moment in acknowledging the invaluable contributions of Black artists to the history of American cinema. With the support of the many sponsors and the collaborative efforts of the community, this exhibition promises to be a transformative experience, fostering a deeper understanding of the cultural impact of Black cinema.

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