In this guest post, Ashley Clark introduces the films he and Dessane Cassell include in their MoMA series, and the historical and contemporary perspectives its stunning span of work offers.
Taking place at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Making Faces on Film: a Collaboration with BFI Black Star” (18-26 April), is a film series which explores how images of blackness have been historically constructed on screen.
As suggested by its title, it is a transatlantic fusion of two curatorial projects. In 2016, I programmed the film series Black Star at London’s British Film Institute. Black Star was an expansive, 10-week appreciation of black screen stardom, spotlighting work from early black icons like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, breakthrough heroes and heroines like Sidney Poitier and Pam Grier, and contemporary superstars like Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett and John Boyega.
At the same time as Black Star, MoMA was running Making Faces: Images of Exploitation and Empowerment (through 4/30), a stills exhibition culled from the institution’s rich photographic archive, depicting Hollywood’s portrayals of “outsiders” in films, and the various—sometimes contentious—ways in which race and gender were represented onscreen. The exhibition’s co-curator, Dessane Cassell, and I, joined forces to develop Making Faces on Film, which aims to celebrate the work of trailblazing screen icons, and provoke honest discussions about important themes of race and representation in our fraught contemporary social and political climate.
Where might we be today, for example, had the earliest film in the program—Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)—been completed and widely distributed? This charming, independently-made romantic comedy stars Bert Williams, the Bahamian-born Vaudeville performer who was known as “America’s first black pop star.” The film isn’t free of some of the era’s more egregious stereotypes—for one, Williams is clad in blackface make-up—yet it depicts black people as three-dimensional, loving, humorous characters. Sadly, the film was never finished, and its reels were only rediscovered decades later by MoMA, who pieced it together in 2014.
In 1915, two years after Lime Kiln Club Field Day was shot, D.W. Griffith’s epic, and epically racist, Confederate fantasy The Birth of a Nation was released. As Marlon Riggs’ sobering documentary Ethnic Notions (1986) asserts, the hugely popular The Birth of a Nation was the key film in helping to set in stone a number of vicious anti-black stereotypes—the lazy layabout, the savage brute—which would persist on screen, and filter into the popular consciousness and political decision-making.
Speaking of stereotypes, many of the early films in Making Faces are complicated and contradictory viewing experiences, inspiring both pleasure and discomfort. Both King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929) and Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (1943), examples of black-cast Hollywood musicals directed by white filmmakers, are awash with transcendent black talent, from the absurdly charismatic ingénue Nina Mae McKinney in the former, to the dancing pyrotechnics of The Nicholas Brothers in the latter. Yet both are riddled with wince-inducing, patronizing portrayals of black life—reminders that, for a long, long time, Hollywood only saw black people as fit for singing and dancing. Then, as now, it was left to industry outsiders with micro-budgets to offer up idiosyncratic views of blackness—our program contains work by left-field “race film” pioneers Oscar Micheaux (Body and Soul, 1925) and Spencer Williams (Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A., 1946.)
In Making Faces, Stormy Weather is paired with Illusions (1982), an independent film by Julie Dash which is set in 1942, a year before Stormy Weather was released, and focuses on the relationship between a light-skinned black film executive who passes herself off as white, and a young black singer who is called in to dub a white singer who is not up to the task. Dash’s powerful, dreamlike critique of industry inequality is one of a number of films in Making Faces which engage with Hollywood mores and problematic representation from non-establishment perspectives. Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s short film Lip (1999 – screening with Ethnic Notions) is a playful, stirring slice of video art which rapidly cuts together precious instances from classic Hollywood cinema of black maids and domestic servants talking back to their employers.
Haile Gerima’s searing, L.A.-set docudrama Bush Mama (1979) offers an alternate vision of a fierce black heroine struggling to survive on her own terms—it’s a wonderful counterpoint to Tamara Dobson’s towering crime-buster Cleopatra Jones (1973). Dobson, marketed by Warner Bros. as “6′2″ of “dynamite,” is charismatic enough—and the film is unhinged enough: see Shelley Winters’ lesbian drug-lord villainess—to transcend the stereotypical trappings of the Blaxploitation genre.
We’re also thrilled to be showcasing the work of three contemporary filmmakers, in partnership with The Studio Museum in Harlem. In Re-Presenting The Archive, short films by the exciting and talented triumvirate Ephraim Asili, Lauren Kelley, and Akosua Adoma Owusu respond to historical representations of blackness by channeling archival aesthetics and employing wit and nuance.
No survey of black screen talent would be complete without Sidney Poitier, and we’re delighted to be screening his film debut, as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, in the taut noir No Way Out (1950). One of Hollywood’s first attempts to directly tackle anti-black American racism, the film finds Poitier playing an upstanding, dignified doctor whose life is threatened by a ranting, dyspeptic, blond-haired, racist bully and serial liar. That the film should feel quite so resonant in 2017 is horrifying, and proof of the cinema’s capacity to shape and reflect society across a long arc of history.
Ultimately, representation matters, and film is one crucial lens through which we can observe how images of blackness have been deliberately constructed and mediated through history. The recent success of films like Moonlight, Get Out, and Hidden Figures show how far we’ve come in the pursuit of nuanced portrayals of onscreen blackness. A delve into cinema history—which is what we aim to offer in Making Faces on Film—shows just how deeply-rooted the obstacles to progress have been.
Featured image: Hallelujah. 1929. USA. Directed by King Vidor. The Museum of Modern Art Film Study Center Special Collections.