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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Black Entertainment History at the Academy Museum

While in Los Angeles last summer, we decided to spend half a day exploring the city before moving from our hotel at Universal Hollywood to our one in Anaheim. We spent half the day at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is amazing if you love movies.

While in LA last year, we spent half the day at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is amazing if you love movies.

Not only do they have a whole exhibit dedicated to The Godfather movies, but they also have one of the surviving prop sharks Bruce from Jaws. There's even a large portion of an exhibit that celebrates the movie Casablanca.

The best temporary exhibit, of the few they have in their 3 floors of art, was one called Regeneration, an exhibit of Black entertainers through history, much of which included a lot of racist tropes and images. If that is too much for you, this exhibit may not be for you, but I greatly appreciated the story of where Black entertainers started and how they defied the odds to become stars, against all odds.

click on this pic for full res - all of these people deserve all the recognition

There is a whole wall of entertainers that performed in something called "soundies", which were 3-minute musical films that were projected on a machine that looked like a jukebox, but was more like a TV. Between 1940 and 1947, businesses that owned a Panoram machine got 8 new soundies shipped to them to be played on their machines. Each week they would get new ones, and though soundies that featured Black stars were put at the end of the reels, it was still great exposure for them to be seen by a wider audience beyond clubs where they may only been seen otherwise.

Balcony Seating Only, by Gary Simmons

You'll find some artwork interspersed with film posters, costumes, and other props, like the above sculpture that is an actual staircase that was inspired by a photo of a segregated theater in Alabama. It is part of his series of "erasure paintings", and serves of a reminder of spaces that divided along race lines and isolated Black spectators and even performers from others. I included another piece of artwork in my last post. A piece that that speaks of the racial disparities during the Civil Rights era, by using denim, wood, and firehose. At the time, Black people were being sprayed with fire hoses, while white people were dancing shoeless, so as not to scuff wooden floors of the school gym floors. The denim represents the overalls worn by the students involved in the civil rights struggles. 

There's an entire section devoted to Miss Josephine Baker, who moved to Paris to fulfill her dream of becoming a bigger star than she was able to become in America. The awards section extends up here, too. You can see Sidney Poitier's award as the first Black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. There's a small tribute to Hattie McDaniel, who played the part of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. She went from playing vaudeville with her family to moving to Los Angeles and becoming the first Black actor to win a competitive Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

I watch a lot of old movies, but through this exhibit, I found out about a lot of movies I'd never even heard of. There was even a big portion on blacksploitation films. I've heard of some and watched some as well, but learned quite a bit about why they are important and was able to sit down and watch a portion of some of the movies that were crucial to the movement. The director Melvin Van Peebles made quite a few influential films during the 60s and 70s.

an outfit worn by Sammy Davis Jr

zoot suits worn in Stormy Weather

If you are like me and enjoy historical textiles and costumes, you'll find a lot of these at the Academy Museum. The Regeneration exhibit had a few, like these amazing costumes above. 

Also in the main exhibits, you can still see props/costumes from some of Hollywood's biggest Black entertainers, including Halle Berry's Oscar dress from 2002. Though she's had so many iconic looks, this is the dress you immediately think of when you think of the Halle Berry look. Also on display is a baseball uniform worn by Richard Pryor and facial prosthetics worn by Zoe Saldana. 

I found the permanent exhibits just as interesting as the rotating ones and I could have easily spent several more hours there, reading about each Academy Award and watching more acceptance speeches. Make sure to plan for at least 3 hours. If you spend less time there, you an eat at the restaurant on-site, which I thought was quite good, or hit up the Los Angeles County Museum of Art nearby. There are plenty of outdoor places to eat right outside as well, and you can park in the garage for a fee, so you aren't driving in circles looking for street parking.

While you may not be able to visit this particular exhibit on Black entertainment history, you never know what you may find at museums of all kinds on your travels. I'm almost always pleasantly surprised when I visit museums, so I definitely encourage you to give different ones a chance before deciding it's not going to be fun or interesting.

Tell me your favorite awards speech(es) from the shows you've watched over the years.

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