Moviemaking became a misguided medium not long after the birth of film. With the opening salvo of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, movies trafficked in the stereotypical images of African-Americans as servants, minstrels and other equally racist amalgams. Movies shifted with the culture, and advertisements papering theater lobbies transformed as well.
Close Up in Black premieres this Saturday at the American Jazz Museum. The traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit examines the depiction of African-Americans on movie posters from the advent of moving pictures to 2002. The selection ranges from pulp-cover paintings to slick Photoshop jobs, touching on blaxploitation, independent, mainstream and race films. “It’s not only graphic-art brilliance but posters that give voice to movements, trends and storytelling information,” explains Marquette Folley, exhibit director.
In the days before trailers, posters functioned as the only form of movie ads. They still evoke strong responses. “There are posters that point to minimalism and abstract expressionism, and I look at some of them and can almost hear Charlie Parker,” Folley says.
That’s why the museum is mounting the exhibition, says Executive Director Juanita Moore. “What we do sort of parallels what the exhibition is doing. Both are observing the crossing over of black culture into white America in art and how that impacts in real life.”
Although the posters have become collectibles, the show reflects more than nostalgia. “There’s a tendency to look backwards in rose-colored tones, but we chose to include all eras of posters to put them in their proper context and generate a discussion,” Folley says. “In the public medium, the black image has suffered from a plethora of unreal images, and these posters chronicle the energy of showing African-Americans as real people.”