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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

‘Regeneration’ at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The ‘Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 – 1971’ exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts highlights the legacy of African American films, performers, and directors through a wide variety of media.
One of the walls in the gallery showcases “race-films,” films produced for black audiences and featuring black casts. Some of these films include ‘Gone Harlem’ (1938) and ‘Son of Ingagi’ (1940).

Cities in the Midwest are often overlooked as cultural attractions compared to their coastal counterparts such as New York City and San Francisco. However, the Midwest is actually rich in art museums, historical sites, and other attractions that showcase the region’s cultural identity.

One is the Detroit Institute of Art, which is located in Midtown Detroit along Woodward Avenue and stands alongside other cultural institutions such as the Detroit Public Library and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The Detroit Institute of Art is home to more than 65,000 artworks spanning a  wide range of time periods, from the earliest civilizations in the ancient Middle East to the present.  

The Institute has hosted a variety of temporary exhibits over the past few years, such as ‘Masterpieces of Early Italian Renaissance Bronze Statuettes,’ ‘Van Gogh in America,’ and ‘Printmaking in the Twenty-First Century.’ One of their current exhibits, ‘Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 – 1971’ showcases forgotten African American films, filmmakers, and performers.

The walls that surround the entrance of this exhibit are decorated with stills and film depicting icons of Black cinema, including the Nicholas Brothers, Dorothy Dandridge, and Melvin Van Peebles. As visitors enter the first gallery of ‘Regeneration,’ they are met with a quote from American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

The gallery takes visitors through a timeline of portraits of Black historical figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass, and their respective publications, The Crisis, Up from Slavery, and The North Star newspapers.

These publications give viewers a glimpse of the ways in which influential Black individuals used writing as a platform to advocate for civil rights and address racial injustice in the United States before the popularization of film. For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis served as the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was where Du Bois and other writers wrote about lynching and racial violence, voting rights, and racism in the U.S. military.

Early Cinema (1896-1915)

The second gallery of Regeneration explores the problematic and controversial Hollywood films that portrayed African Americans in a racist and stereotypical light. Namely, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and a White House Invitation to a 1915 screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation are displayed in the gallery.

The goal of this gallery is to highlight the role of 19th century America’s racially charged climate in shaping Black cinema. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Birth of a Nation both perpetuate common stereotypes surrounding African Americans. The Birth of a Nation especially contributed to the propagation of harmful racial stereotypes, as it portrayed emancipated slaves as uncivilized and glorified the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Moreover, the earliest film adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin used white actors in blackface and relegated Black performers to minor roles as background characters.

Race Films (1910’s-1940’s)

The third gallery of Regeneration focuses on “Race Films,” all-Black cast productions made specifically for Black audiences.

This gallery showcases the vibrant and colorful posters of films such as Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and Reform School (1939). Within the gallery, there is also a small dark room, where visitors can sit on benches and watch clips of these films on a television screen.

These films fought against the racist stereotypes spread by earlier films such as The Birth of a Nation. Despite the lower budgets and limited resources of race film directors, these films played a critical role in representing African American communities and giving them opportunities in a time where racial segregation and discrimination were rampant in mainstream Hollywood.

Music and Film 

As sound films began to gain popularity over silent films, opportunities expanded for African American performers to find their place in the film industry, whether it be in acting, singing, or dancing.

As you walk through this gallery, you can see spotlights on performers such as American-born French dancer and singer Josephine Baker, and American jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington.                                 

Josephine Baker flourished as a dancer in the roaring twenties, where she performed in musicals and traveled to France. Her dances often incorporated elements of African dance, exoticism, and jazz. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington rose to prominence through his orchestra’s performances at the Cotton Club in Harlem, as well as their appearance in films such as Birth of the Blues (1941) and Reveille with Beverly (1943).

Stars and Icons

The ‘Stars and Icons’ gallery features a large television screen that plays clips from films including Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1943), two films that feature predominantly African American casts. On either side of the screen, mannequins display the various outfits that can be seen in the clips.

One of the scenes that played on the screen was the Nicholas Brothers’ performance in Stormy Weather. In this clip, the Nicholas Brothers performed an electric tap-dance routine to Cab Calloway’s jazz composition “Jumpin’ Jive.” In a mix of gravity-defying leaps, precise footwork, and flawless synchronization, they successfully established themselves as some of the most talented dancers in the industry. Their dynamic and captivating performance led to their inclusion as the featured image on the ‘Regeneration’ website, as well as on the signs directing museum visitors to the exhibit.

Freedom Movements

The Postwar period was a turbulent time for the civil rights movement. During this time, Hollywood saw the rise of stars such as Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee.

Paul Robeson was a successful actor who starred in multiple Broadway productions, such as “Othello,” “John Henry,” and “Show Boat.” However, Robeson was not just a successful actor, but a dedicated civil rights activist as well. Throughout his career, Robeson publicly supported India’s independence and also fought against apartheid in South Africa. In the 1950s, at the peak of the Red Scare, Robeson was blacklisted due to his criticism of U.S. policies regarding racial injustice and imperialism. Although this resulted in Robeson becoming ostracized by the entertainment industry and even other African American leaders, this gallery brings his creative accomplishments back into the spotlight. The gallery displays posters of Robeson’s various films, including The Proud Valley (1940) and Emperor Jones (1933).

Harry Belafonte also played a vital role in the civil rights movement, contributing to bail money for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, as well as using his platform as an artist to fight against racial injustice. He recorded numerous albums throughout his career, the most well-known of which include “Calypso” (1956), “Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean” (1957), and “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall” (1959).  


The seventh and last gallery, Agency, focuses on the 1960s and early 1970s, a time period characterized by the counterculture movement, in which people were protesting against the Vietnam War, and the peak of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement.

This gallery highlights Black directors Madeline Anderson, Robert L. Goodwin, William Greaves, Gordon Parks, and Melvin Van Peebles, and their films that addressed social issues within the Black community. For instance, Madeline Anderson’s 1970 documentary I Am Somebody was centered around the 1969 strike of Black female medical workers for equal pay in Charleston, South Carolina.

By the end of these seven galleries, visitors have explored nearly 80 years of Black cinematic history, brought to life through film clips, artifacts, and displays. The exhibit is truly an important institution to Detroit, a city where African American art and culture played a significant role in the development of the city’s vibrant cultural landscape.

The Regeneration exhibit is on display until June 23rd, 2024, and you can purchase tickets here.

As visitors enter the first gallery of ‘Regeneration,’ they are met with a quote from American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

About the Contributor
Grace Mao, Staff Reporter
 Grace Mao is a Managing Editor for 'The Science Survey,' where she edits her peers’ articles across various sections before they are published online. She enjoys journalistic writing because it is a way to bring certain topics from both history and the present to light. Her favorite aspect of writing journalistic articles is being able to interview her classmates and learn about their opinions on the topic she is writing about. Her favorite aspect of taking photographs is their ability to capture emotions, feelings, and memories, while also telling a story. Outside of school, Grace enjoys drawing, listening to music, and spending time with friends. She plans to pursue journalism in the future, specifically scientific journalism. Grace also plans to continue biology research and study biomedical sciences in college and use journalism to share the research she conducts with the public.