The California African America Museum Unveils Two New Shows about Race Films of the Early 20th Century

By Barrera, Sandra | Pasadena Star-News, June 26, 2017 | Go to article overview

The California African America Museum Unveils Two New Shows about Race Films of the Early 20th Century


Barrera, Sandra, Pasadena Star-News


The California African American Museum is unveiling a pair of shows that explore a little-known genre of cinema — race films of the silent era.

These shows, “Center Stage: African American Women in Silent Race Films,” beginning Wednesday, and “Gary Simmons: Fade to Black,” launching July 12, shine a light on how particular films created in the early 20th century afforded African-American actors the opportunity to play a range of roles.

The roles were atypical of Hollywood at the time, from female doctors to heroines.

“Directors often created these films in retaliation against disparaging portrayals of African-Americans, to challenge the larger narrative and to get across themes of upliftment, pride and self-sufficiency within the black community,” says Tyree Boyd-Pates, the co-curator of “Center Stage” and CAAM’s history curator and program manager, adding many race films were produced to counteract the negative imagery popularized by D.W. Griffiths’ “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915.

As conversations about diversity and representation of actors and filmmakers of color continue to permeate through Hollywood, CAAM shines a light on early African-American pioneers who worked both in front of and behind the camera.

In his first L.A. museum exhibition, Simmons paints the titles of race films on five large walls as part of a site-specific installation in CAAM’s grand entrance. Much of his work centers on his signature erasure technique of hand smudging.

“Gary is interested in this idea of directors with limited resources still working under conditions that were not favorable, making every effort to produce art to show a fuller breadth of African-American life,” says Naima J. Keith, CAAM’s deputy director of exhibitions and programs.

Simmons’ work includes titles screening in the “Center Stage” exhibition, which focuses on female leads.

“Historically, there was an era where black women were able to portray their agency in a way that might illuminate it for new generations, as well as Hollywood,” Boyd-Pates says. …

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