Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


February 5, 2001

'Race' exhibit still resonates

Angela Cotten 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 Library’s Schatten Gallery, “Selling Race” was born from a much larger project, “Segregated Cinema in a Southern City: Atlanta, 1895–1996,” 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 University’s 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 (1910s–1940s) 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 exhibition’s 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 Atlanta’s 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 Hollywood’s 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 latter’s declining phobia of virile onscreen images of black men, and the former’s 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 and others.

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 exhibit’s 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 exhibit’s 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.


Back to Emory Report Feb. 5, 2001