February 5, 2001
'Race' exhibit still resonates
is a graduate student in
the Institute of Liberal Arts.
Museums have a knack for turning cultural remnants into stories and bringing the past to life again. This was the case with Selling Race: Cinematic Poster Art from Race Films to Blaxploitation, an exhibition featuring 75 movie posters, handbills, lobby cards and newsprints that showed how race-related films were marketed and distributed in America from the 1900s to the 1970s.
On display last summer in Woodruff Librarys Schatten Gallery, Selling
Race was born from a much larger project, Segregated Cinema
in a Southern City: Atlanta, 18951996, on which professors
Dana White and Matthew Bernstein have been working since 1997. Production
of the exhibit was a collaborative effort that involved many graduate
students and staff, who sifted through more than 1,400 artifacts in the
Universitys African American cinema collection and assembled them
into a creative, illuminating and memorable display.
The exhibit fell in line with the mission of the Center for the Study
of Public Scholarship as a project that organized (popular) cultural materials
into a framework of knowledge for public consumption in institutions like
museums, cultural festivals, etc.
The exhibit had four main parts, distinguished by period and theme, and
each recalled how race was packaged and sold to the moviegoing
public. The first, Movies for Black Audiences, included materials
from an earlier period (1910s1940s) of independent of African American
filmmaking. A response to segregation in mainstream Hollywood production,
this industry was particularly important for American blacks because it
countered the negative stereotypes in mainstream cinema with more positive
images of black life and also demonstrated African Americans artistic
imagination. The exhibitions focus on this industry debunked assumptions
that black filmmaking is a recent practice of the late 20th century and
artists like Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee.
In the second part, titled Censorship, Atlanta Style, the
exhibit presented materials that described the policing machinations of
Atlantas white power elite, who were determined to maintain Jim
Crow values and caste relations by screening the ideological contents
of films before public release. Movies like Lost Boundaries (1949)
were banned in Atlanta because they challenged assumptions about the genetic
nature of racial differences and the inherent antagonism between blacks
and whites, both philosophical struts in the framework of segregation.
The third part of the exhibit, The South Reconstructed, featured
posters of integrated films produced in Hollywood in the 1960s.
The more positive representations of blacks and race relations in these
films reflected Hollywoods attempt to capitalize on the civil rights
struggles and its effect on popular sentiment about race.
Finally, the fourth part, The Era of Blaxploitation, displayed
artifacts from this genre of black films produced in the 1970s. Posters
and newsclippings marked the changes taking place in both black filmmaking
and the white viewing public: the latters declining phobia of virile
onscreen images of black men, and the formers increasing preference
for images of more defiant black men onscreen, and the latter's declining
phobia of these images. As I walked through this section, I felt nostalgia
for my childhood years, when we would pay $2 at the Rialto Theatre (now
the Georgia State University Arts Center) to watch a string of features
like Dolemite: The Human Tornado, The Revenge of J.D. Walker, Blacula
A major strength of the exhibit was its detailing of the power struggles
that took place in selling race-related films in the South and the historical
evolution of these struggles. We gained a sense of the dialogical structure
that characterized the production and release of race-related films and
screen images of blacks and whites: struggles between white officials
and producers who wanted to preserve the values and social caste system
of Jim Crow; independent black filmmakers who sought to challenge the
stereotypical images of blacks in American cinema with more complex portraits
of black culture; and the Hollywood machine interested primarily in capitalizing
on whatever sentiment happened to be in vogue.
White attributed this success to the students who helped assemble the
various pieces of the exhibition. The graduate students did a wonderful
job, he said. Each section of the exhibition was thoroughly
researched by the staff and student workers, and expository narratives
and commentaries on individual artifacts reflected their depth of knowledge
of the subject.
Selling Race was received very well by the public, which
included viewers from Emory as well as other educational institutions
in metro Atlanta, and some spectators offered their opinions on the exhibit.
Many felt it provided a useful narrative progression of the racial and
economic politics involved in marketing and censoring films.
For some observers, the historical angle helped illuminate the racial
politics of the modern entertainment industry:
Excellent. one wrote. [It] gave me the historical perspective
to better understand the recycling of images of cinematic and cultural
themes that shape our entertainment and popular culture of today.
Others praised the exhibits bodacity in delving into a subject
our culture actively avoids in both private and public settings. One viewer
commented, Impressive! Informative! As a black American with a degree
in radio-television-film production, it was great to see samples of the
works that were never discussed in my classes. I brought my 3-year-old
son just so he could get some exposure.
Still others suggested that the exhibit, if shown again, might include
more critical commentary on the problematic images of blacks and black
culture. Randall Gue, a graduate student who worked closely with White
and Bernstein in putting Selling Race together, correctly
reminded us, however, that criticism of some images was built into the
expository nature that framed each of the exhibits four parts.
The difference in perspectives may be owing to the location of this critical
commentary; while the production team included critical angles in the
commentary introducing each section, some viewers might have felt that
additional criticism might have been incorporated into the commentaries
explaining individual pieces.
Selling Race has closed, but it lives on in the minds of
viewers, which is a testament of its creativity and innovation. What is
more, it is a testament that the project achieved one of the coveted goals
of public scholarship: to present the scholarly research to a broader
audience beyond the University in ways that leave an indelible imprint
and spark curiosity, debate and critical thinking among attendees. These
achievements made our work a memorable exhibition.