Back in Black

The history of film in America is incomplete if it omits African Americans. Not playing servants or clowns. But actors in every role, directors, writers, and producers, for blacks had a cinema of their own that developed concurrently with the rise of Hollywood. "Close-Up in Black: African-American Film Posters," a traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution and currently on display at the Wolfsonian-FIU, deftly showcases the evolution of black cinema via the colorful large-scale advertisements created to lure people into theaters.

Countering racist stereotypes were race movies, works made by independent producers in the early teens to the mid-Forties that featured an "all-colored cast" or a "cast of colored stars." They are the first truly black films. A monumental one was Emmett J. Scott's The Birth of a Race in 1918, an answer to D.W. Griffith's racist Birth of a Nation and a failure. Posters of that time often resembled the dramatic covers of pulp novels. They pushed cowboy flicks, pilot yarns, romances, and more. In 1931 the first all-black talkie, The Exile, made its debut. Fourteen years later the era of the race movie saw its end with Big Timers, a roundly criticized effort starring Stepin Fetchit and Jackie "Moms" Mabley.

Following World War II, message movies addressed issues of discrimination and offered expanded roles to black actors. Posters for tales such as 1935's Murder in Harlem carried boasts like "based on the sensational Stanfield murder case!" The poster for the first all-black horror film, 1940's Son of Ingagi, features a monster that appears to be a cross between Godzilla and the Toxic Avenger (the villainous creature is also suspiciously darker in color than any of the movie's cast members). "Terror reigns when the giant of the jungles breaks loose!" screams the poster.

The Fifties and Sixties brought crossover films. They were often dominated by Sidney Poitier, whose commanding presence inhabited everything from the poignant Lilies of the Field to the gritty cop drama In the Heat of the Night. Strong graphic images and psychedelic designs on the placards reflect turbulent social and political times. Particularly striking is the stark poster for the 1969 advertising comedy Putney Swope: It features a smirking black woman standing in for the middle finger of a hand flipping the viewer the bird.

The tumult of the late Sixties and early Seventies gave rise to blaxploitation movies. A term created by show business bible Variety, blaxploitation offered vivid portrayals of black urban life and a marked disdain for whites. Major Hollywood studios began pumping out action-packed movies like Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, and Cleopatra Jones. Bigger budgets are evident in the cleverly designed posters adorned with classic logos.

Among the works marking the end of the exhibition are posters highlighting large-scale photographs of actors Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in their respective Academy Award-winning roles for Training Day and Monster's Ball. In the same room, their Oscar acceptance speeches (and Poitier's too) play on an endless video loop, clearly reminding viewers that the story of black film goes on.