One Fine Show: ‘Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971’ at the Detroit Institute of the Arts

This recently-opened show in Detroit pairs historical movie memorabilia—including photographs, costumes, props and posters—with contemporary artworks by Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Kara Walker.

Recently I attended a talk given by an artist and a film professor about the history and influence of Black cinema, a nebulous term that was among the first topics explored. It wasn’t a formal talk, so I expected a freewheeling conversation, and to go home not with any grand thesis but just a list of good movies to watch. But then the artist said something early on that has stuck with me. As far as he was concerned, he said, all cinema was Black cinema, the same way that all pop and rock music is Black music due to its origins in jazz and the blues. The language of the mediums was established by those early performers and has only ever seen new coats of paint since then.

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A black and white film still of two men in tuxedos leaping in front of a table
The Nicholas Brothers in a scene from Stormy Weather (1943), from left, Fayard Nicholas and Harold Nicholas. Photographic print, gelatin silver. Courtesy Margaret Herrick Library, © Twentieth Century Fox

This idea exists in the same universe as “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971,” a just-opened show at the Detroit Institute of the Arts that pairs nearly 200 historical items—including photographs, costumes, props and posters—with contemporary artworks by Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Kara Walker. Originally organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the show is a bit of a hodgepodge but it’s hard to be mad at it on any level. They’ve got Melvin Van Peebles’ hat from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)!

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There are plenty of movie posters, of course, and Glenn Ligon’s Double America 2 (2012) seems to interact with all of them. The second, inverted “America” of this piece flickers to reflect that this monolithic idea is, in fact, as fragile as a movie poster. Nothing ages so dramatically as a movie poster. They are artifacts of excitement long extinct, quaint memories in a marketplace that demands more and bigger each year. Though the ones in this show are particularly good. In the drawn flier for The Flaming Crisis (1924), a ghost in a prison cell and a tuxedo points a finger at a wrongfully convicted newspaperman. This journalist will become a cowboy before the end of the movie, according to IMDB.

 

Movies used to be really fun—so much so that you can only feel joy when you see press photos of Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Sydney Poitier, even when you know the stories of the difficult moments in their lives. These were people defining a medium with a remarkable degree of equity, all things being relative. Also on display is Gary Simmons’ Balcony Seating Only (2017), a minimalist metal sculpture that recreates the separate outdoor staircase in a segregated movie theater. This show also has an archival photograph showing just such a staircase in Alabama in 1936. The pairing robs the artwork of a portion of its power, because on some level you may not have believed, or may not have wanted to believe, that the theater’s owners really would label it COLORED in big block letters. Yet as in the Simmons piece they did, and this reality packs a punch.

Such a juxtaposition shows why these kinds of shows that mix art and archives are hard to do. Still, this one is a nice reminder the movies were once a site of the important intermingling of ideas, and just in time for the Oscars.

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971” is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through June 23

One Fine Show: ‘Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971’ at the Detroit Institute of the Arts