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Hollywood's view of race? It's in the posters

Art offers insight into the history of African American filmmakers.

August 24, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

The exhibition "Close Up in Black: African American Film Posters," at the California African American Museum through Oct. 12, can be viewed on several levels.

The 90-poster exhibition culled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences collection can be enjoyed for its examples of poster art. However, the posters also offer insights into the history of African American filmmakers and performers "and the whole mechanism of how films get made," said Ellen Harrington, the academy's exhibitions curator and special-events programmer.

"These posters play into the history of our culture and our country," she added. "So every era of these very different type of films are reflected in the exhibition. They speak to huge social changes that have taken place in our country as long as there have been films."

The exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the academy and the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum & Center for African American History and Culture, is making the Exhibition Park museum the only California stop on its three-year, 10-city tour. The posters reflect just a small percentage of the Edward Mapp Collection housed at the academy's Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. (Mapp wrote "Blacks in American Film: Today and Yesterday" and co-wrote "A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black-Cast Posters.")

"We have well over 1,000 posters," Harrington says. "There are a number of reasons why we chose certain posters. Not only are they gorgeous, but they really do illustrate, for example, the way that a major star like Paul Robeson was minimized in domestic film posters. And then we have foreign posters where he is the lead character in the poster. In advertising, there are a lot of times the racial politics of the marketing didn't actually represent what was going on in the film."

Mapp's favorite is a huge, vivid portrait of Robeson from the 1935 British film "Sanders of the River." The colorful poster -- in the exhibit -- is from the Brazilian release of the film known in that country as "Bosambo."

"To me, it's intriguing because Robeson is a figure that Hollywood didn't know what to do with," says Linda Mehr, director of the Herrick library. "He's just so powerful. Robeson hated that movie after it was done. He thought it was going to be a great chance to show a strong African leader and instead he becomes a lackey to the white imperialists. The poster that was put out by the Brazilians clearly shows that despite that, the power that comes through is that of Robeson, and he transcends what the filmmakers wanted to do with him."

Early 'race' movies

The exhibition, Mehr says, captures the extensive range of the Mapp Collection, which includes numerous examples of so-called race movies from the first part of the 20th century that starred African American and were often produced and directed by such black filmmakers as Oscar Micheaux. "Clearly, the race movies are amazing because they show the range that blacks were able to play and were not allowed to in Hollywood productions," Mehr says.

"After World War II, race movies began to fade away. But Hollywood picked up an awareness of this critical issue so central to American life of race relations with 'Home of the Brave' and 'Intruder in the Dust.' "

But the exhibition illustrates that even when a Hollywood production featured a leading African American character, either the actor's or actress' picture was not put on the poster, as in the case of "Intruder in the Dust," or it was minimized, as was the case with "Home of the Brave" and the 1959 version of "Imitation of Life." In the case of the 1943 musical "Cabin in the Sky," starring Lena Horne, an Al Hirschfeld caricature illustration was used so the actor's race wasn't visible.

The exhibition also features examples of mainstream Hollywood films from the 1950s and '60s that starred Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in crossover roles, the black exploitation films of the 1970s and independent productions of the 1990s. "We close with two Academy Award winners: 'Training Day' and 'Monster's Ball,' " Mehr says.

Mehr added that the academy is "hoping that this kind of traveling exhibition will generate interest [in African American cinema] and there will be more people wanting to know more about it and trying to unearth more of those early films. There have been scholars who have done work on this subject, but there is more work to be done and learned. We imperil our future, if we don't know our past."

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