Must-See Pieces at the Academy Museum’s ‘Black Cinema’ Exhibit


The Academy Museum’s Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 is not to be missed. Not only does the exhibit celebrate the portrayal of black people in film, but it serves as an important reminder and lesson about the contributions of black filmmakers and stars to the world of cinema.

Opening August 21, seven galleries make up the exhibition exploring low-budget dramas from Oscar Micheaux in the silent film era to the works of Melvin Van Peebles.

The exhibit also introduces audiences to stars largely unknown to mainstream moviegoers – Ralph Cooper, Clarence Brooks and Francine Everett – alongside iconic screen legends Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Lena Horne.

Poiter’s Oscar for ‘Lillies of the Field’ is just one of many artifacts on display in this historic exhibit. Besides the prize, tap shoes worn by the Nicholas Brothers and one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets.

Cowboy boots worn by Herb Jeffries in “Harlem on the Prairie” in 1937

Before appearing in westerns such as “The Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem Rides the Range”, Herb Jeffries made his acting debut in “Harlem on the Prairie” in 1937.

Jeffries played Jeff Kincaid and was one of the first black actors to sing Western music on screen. Billed as “black America’s first singing cowboy in movies”, Jeffries could sing, act and ride horses. “Harlem on the Prairie” was filmed at NB Murray Dude Ranch, a black-owned ranch in Victorville, California.

On display at “Regeneration” are a pair of leather boots worn by Jeffries in the film.

Costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr. in “Porgy and Bess” in 1959

Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Sportin’ Life” costume from “Porgy and Bess” is an original black and white patterned vintage outfit. The fitted jacket with pointed lapel and upper collar in black velvet is matched with matching buttoned trousers.

Irene Sharaff was the film’s costume designer.

Slides worn by the Nicholas Brothers

Two pairs of tap shoes worn by Fayard and Harold Nicholas can be found under the score of “Stormy Weather”. While the Nicholas Brothers rarely received lead role opportunities due to racial bias, the duo still achieved international fame through their talent, charisma and iconic routines, particularly with their performance in “Stormy Weather to the tune of “Jumpin’ Jive”.

The brothers, with their background as choreographers and dancers, didn’t even rehearse for the sequence, which is considered one of Hollywood’s most impressive dance numbers.

Costume design artwork for 1954’s “Carmen Jones”

Costume designer Mary Anne Nyberg created the costumes for 1954’s “Carmen Jones,” the all-black musical comedy starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Dushanbe Carroll and Brock Peters. The exhibit features two design illustrations from the film: the black off-the-shoulder top and red pencil skirt ensemble worn by Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones, and the pink plaid dress worn by Olga James as Cindy Lou.

Dandridge was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Carmen Jones,” making her the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Zoot costumes worn by dancers in 1943’s “Stormy Weather”

Next to the Nicholas Brothers tap shoes on display are three zoot suits worn by dancers in 1943’s “Stormy Weather.” Cab Calloway sported the infamous oversized zoot suit in the film, which was released the same year that the Zoot Suit Riots happened. According to the exhibit, the striped zoot suits were worn by Doris Ake, Nadine Coles, Cleo Herndon, E. Williams, Reeves and an unidentified dancer.

Helen Rose was the film’s costume designer.

Paul Robeson’s version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the 1927 musical ‘Show Boat’

A rendition of Paul Robeson’s “Ol’ Man River” from the 1927 musical “Show Boat” plays in a gallery at the exhibit, with Robeson’s version alongside the original lyrics. Robeson would sometimes change the lyrics of songs he performed in a musical or film to express his true lived reality. A civil rights activist, Robeson often countered racial stereotypes depicted in movies.

In the original “Ol’ Man River”, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the song reads: “Git a little drunk / An’ you land in jail / Ah gits weary / An’ missing of tryin’ / Ah I’m tired of living / I feel like dying Robeson, who sang “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 film adaptation, changed this part of the song to his own rendition : “You show a little courage and / You land in prison / But I keep on laffin’ instead of crying / I I must keep fighting / Until I die.

Sheet music ‘Stormy Weather’


Along with Lena Horne’s sequined evening dress is the score to “Stormy Weather.” The 1943 musical has been restored for the Academy Museum and will be shown on September 3.

The song was written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1933 and is performed by Horne’s character Selina Rogers near the end of the film.

Trumpet in Bb Selmer engraved by Louis Armstrong

Jazz extraordinaire Louis Armstrong had a career that spanned five decades. Over the years he became famous for his trumpet playing as well as his voice.

The trumpet on display dates from around 1930. Armstrong was reputed to have played his trumpets for up to five years before passing them on.

On display is a custom-made and inscribed Henri Selmer B-flat trumpet that belonged to Armstrong.


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