Meet the Black Filmmakers That Changed Representation in Movies 


“When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media. Someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me.” –Lizzo

If anyone needed a reminder of how important representation is in visual media, last week’s release of the new Little Mermaid trailer provided it. Dozens of cheerful, genuinely moving videos of little brown and Black girls, rejoicing in seeing a Black Halle Bailey as the new Ariel, hit social media—and were swiftly followed by racist backlash.

Representation matters and its absence in visual media is not because Black folks haven’t been creating it; it’s that predominantly white gatekeepers who fund and distribute film and TV have chosen to exclude Black creators. And that’s why REGENERATION: BLACK CINEMA 1898-1971, an exhibit at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles exploring seven decades of the vast canon of work created by Black American filmmakers, is so important. The exhibit is a tribute to Black filmmakers who did their work not just in the face of structural racism, but in a burgeoning industry that refused to acknowledge them. 

I sat down with Rhea Combs, the co-creator of REGENERATION and director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to hear about what she learned.       

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 17: Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Rhea L. Combs speaks onstage during The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and Campari Celebrate the Opening of Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on August 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Academy Museum of Motion Pictures )

Rebecca Carroll: This exhibition features films and visual art from nearly a century of Black filmmaking. Are there pieces that you still think about all the time?

Rhea Combs: Yes, short answer. We open it with Something Good – Negro Kiss from 1898, a 29-second work that shows Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle in this kind of playful embrace (the first documented on-screen kiss between two Black folks in film history). It’s the piece that you see when you walk in, and it’s emblematic of everything that Doris Berger and I were really looking to accomplish with this exhibition. And by that, I mean: You see this juxtaposed with a Glenn Ligon Double America 2 work that’s this neon piece that has America written right-side up and then written upside-down—that kind of double consciousness of knowing someone else is looking at you, but then also doing it for yourself and doing it with such pride and such dignity and such beauty. I think Something Good – Negro Kiss embodies all of that. 

The exhibition notes describe how the groundbreaking Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was working in an environment where the bar for what a film should look like was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nationwhich, as most people aware of the film know, was wildly racist. What do you think the impact of that film was on Micheaux and other Black filmmakers?

When we looked at this show and conceptualized it, we had to predate cinema and look at theater and photography, which then allows you to understand that there were these conversations around Black modernity that were happening. When you situate it within that framework, then you understand better an Oscar Micheaux. Yes, there was D.W. Griffith, [but] there were also people like Booker T. Washington and [W.E.B.] Du Bois, who were creating these really grassroots, organized protests against [Griffith’s] work.… So I think there were these kinds of social and cultural dynamics at play within the African American community that we try to address in the exhibition through showing forward thinkers like Sojourner Truth, who used photography, and Du Bois, Frederick Douglas, and Booker T. Washington. 


That is sort of a summation of Black culture—so much of the work we create is in response to what we haven’t been able to do, what we haven’t been able to be. Were there moments in the exhibition when it was clear that these filmmakers were creating work that was not [only] in response to the ways in which we were and are oppressed?

I think even within the spaces in which these works were shown (pop-up churches or community centers) suggest that while these social realities were happening with structural racism, I believe that filmmakers were doing this in part because they wanted to do the work. They weren’t just doing it in response to

We talk a lot about the power of seeing ourselves reflected in film and TV, especially as we have been so objectified and dehumanized, right? It’s just amazing to me that we’ve been doing this for so long and internalizing as much as we have—both the beauty of something like Negro Kiss, and the ugliness of Birth of a Nation

We’ve been navigating. As you look through seven decades of a push, [a] pull, an ebb-and-flow of this artistic practice, you still have these moments of hope and glimmer. You have an 18-year-old Josephine Baker going from leaving after being traumatized from race riots in East St. Louis to France, not knowing how to speak French, to becoming fluent in French and becoming a spy. 

Did you say a spy

Yes, she became a spy during World War II!

I always seem to forget that.

We hope to take the visitor on a journey [in this exhibition], and to understand the complexities of not only the external world, but also the people—performers, folks in front of and behind the camera—and the complexities behind their stories. 


So if you wish for the visitor to go on a journey, where do they land at the end of that journey?

They land with a sense of hope, a sense of possibility, and this notion of resilience. In the culminating gallery, we showcase five filmmakers: Madeline Anderson, an independent filmmaker; documentary filmmaker William Greaves; the writer and filmmaker Robert Goodwin, whose work had been lost until recently; Gordon Parks; and Melvin Van Peebles. So you get a range of styles. You also get a sense of how the industry was shifting by the time you get to the late 60s/early 70s. At the end, you see this mantle where artists have chosen yet again to use this art form of film as an opportunity to speak about issues in a variety of ways. And I think that then leaves the visitor [with an expanded] understanding of American cinema.

And where have you landed?

Where have I landed? [laughs] I sit in this space of awe and inspiration—that through so many trials and tribulations, there were people who still found a way to create artwork that was meaningful.