Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Category: Costume Design

DIA opens a new exhibition: Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971

Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 -1971 features nearly 200 historical items – including photographs, film clips, costumes, props, and posters.

Installation image at the entrance to the exhibit. Image courtesy of DAR. All other images courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) opened a new exhibition, Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, a landmark exhibition exploring the profoundly influential yet often overlooked history and impact of Blacks in American film from cinema’s infancy, as the Hollywood industry matured and the years following the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition, originally organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, will also include a new, unique film series in partnership with the Detroit Film Theatre.

“We are honored to present Regeneration, a powerful, inspiring, and important exhibition that examines the rich and often untold history of Blacks in American cinema,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons. “The exhibition explores the critical roles played by pioneering Black actors, filmmakers, and advocates to shape and influence U.S. cinema and culture in the face of enduring racism and discrimination.”

Dancers Performing the Cake Walk, 1887. Gelatin Silver Print. Culver Pictures. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Photographs & Print Division. The New York Public Library.

The exhibition opens with early cinema and explores moments of progress as other forms emerged in the early 1900s despite the prevalence of racism that permeated the culture. Many Black artists appeared in blackface and played roles subservient to their skills and interests. Performers like Bert Williams and Sam Lucas found work on stage that did not represent their full humanity in the roles cast would depend on adapting to racist tropes. The exhibition includes Newsreels.  Home movies, excerpts from narrative films, documentaries, and a selection of fully restored, rarely-seen films amplify African American contributions to the history of cinema in the United States.

Excerpt from Something Good, Negro Kiss, 1898, Director Nicholas Selig, the National Library of Norway.

“This critically important presentation chronicles much of what we know on-screen but shares so much more of what happened off-screen,” said Elliot Wilhelm, DIA Curator of Film. “Our community will learn how each generation of these pioneering actors and filmmakers paved the way for the following generation to succeed and how they served as symbols and advocates for social justice in and beyond Hollywood. The museum’s beautiful Detroit Film Theatre will help further share this history with a wide-ranging film series that ties together the exhibition and Detroit’s cinema history.”

Lime Kiln Club Field Day, Excerpt for the film, Museum of Modern Art. 1913. American black-and-white silent film produced by the Biograph Company and Klaw and Erlanger.

This archival assembly of one of the oldest surviving silent-era films featuring an all-black cast was created by the Museum of Modern Art in New York after seven unedited film reels were discovered in its collection. Based on a popular collection of stories, Lime Kiln Club Field Day features Black stage performer Bert Williams, actor Abbie Mitchell, and hat designer Odessa Warren Grey; many cast members were recruited from the popular Harlem Musical Darktown Follies.

Among the artifact highlights on view, Regeneration presents home movie excerpts of legendary artists such as Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers; excerpts of films featuring Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Cicely Tyson, and many others.

Installation image, Opening room to the exhibition. Detroit Institute of Arts. 2024

The famous contemporary Artist Kara Walker presents the viewer with The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven, created using cut paper and adhesive on the wall, which stretches out 35 feet long. Her well-known silhouettes recall and interpret the trauma of slavery, restating historical memory and forcing the viewers to bear witness to her world of racial oppression and suffering on pre-Civil War plantations. The curators from the Academy of Motion Pictures in the image above are, starting from the left: Doris Berger, Co-Curator of Regeneration; Jacqueline Stewart, Director and President of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures; and Rhea Combs, Co-Curator of Regeneration. The first exhibition of Regeneration opened in Los Angeles as part of its parent institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Image from Up From Slavery, An Autobiography, Booker T. Washington. 1901.

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington is the 1901 autobiography of the American educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). The book describes his experience of working to rise up from being enslaved as a child during the Civil War to help Black people and other persecuted people of color learn helpful, marketable skills and work to pull themselves, as a race, up by the bootstraps. He reflects on the generosity of teachers and philanthropists who helped educate Black and Native Americans and describes his efforts to instill manners, breeding, health, and dignity into students. Washington explained that integrating practical subjects is partly designed to “reassure the White community of the usefulness of educating Black people.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Life Among the Lowly, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852. Published by John P. Jewett and Company.

One of many artifacts in the exhibition is the famous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the American Civil War.”  Stowe sent a copy of the book to Charles Dickens, who wrote her in response: “I have read your book with the deepest interest and sympathy, and admire, more than I can express to you, both the generous feeling which inspired it, and the admirable power with which it is executed.” Some modern scholars criticized the novel for condescending racist descriptions of the black characters’ appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate.

Movie Poster, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Epoch Producing Co. 1915.

The film made in 1905, The Birth of a Nation, is a landmark silent epic film directed by D.W. Griffith. Its plot, part fiction, and part history chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship between two families in the Civil War.  The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is portrayed as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values, protect white women, and maintain white supremacy. The story that many recall is that Birth of a Nation was the first motion picture to be screened inside the White House, viewed there by President Woodrow Wilson, his family, and members of his cabinet.

Installation image, Early Movie Posters

The exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, now at the Detroit Institute of Arts, came from Los Angeles and was organized by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2022 to help people fully understand how people of color participated in the motion picture industry from the very start.

Seeing this exhibition is the perfect experience for the people of Detroit to take their family to the DIA (at no cost to those living in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties) to view the chronology of events as they unfolded despite the challenges of reconstruction and the everlasting racism that permeated the culture for a century. The DIA is the first stop; in an attempt to educate people across the country with truth, facts, and evidence, this exhibition is bound to make an impression. It is critical today, more than ever, that we embrace our history. In current events across the country, there are plans to erase black history forever. At last count, 44 states have started debating whether to introduce bills that would limit what schools can teach about race, American history, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

One of the most articulate writers on this topic is James Baldwin, who writes, “It is the utmost importance that a black child sees on the screen someone who looks like him or her. Our children have suffered from the lack of identifiable images for as long as they were born. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

Museum Hours – Tuesdays – Thursday- 9:00am – 4:00pm
Friday – 9:00am – 9:00pm
Saturday – Sunday – 10:00am – 5:00pm

The DIA exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 February 4 – June 23, 2024.

Ruth E. Carter @ The Wright

Ruth E. Carter Costume Design at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan.

“Roots” (2016) Miniseries directed by Bruce Beresford, Thomas Carter, Phillip Noyce, and Mario Van Peebles, installation with costumes by Ruth E. Carter for Nancy (Anna Paquin) and Charlotte (Joy Jacobson). All Photos:  K.A. Letts

When we go to the movies, we are often only dimly conscious that each film is a complex work of collaboration, with thousands of anonymous artists and craftsmen working together to realize the vision of a singular director at the top of the credits. But Ruth E. Carter, the creative mind and eye behind the costumes in over 70 films by a who’s who of talented filmmakers, stands out as a uniquely talented contributor to this most collaborative art form.   The current retrospective of her work, with costumes and props from her 40-year career, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” is now on view at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History until March 31, 2024.  It’s well worth a visit and the (rather steep) price of admission to appreciate, in person, these exquisitely realized artifacts of Carter’s long career.

Carter has been the go-to designer for a distinguished collection of directors—Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, among others—who depend upon her meticulous research and masterful craftsmanship to give visual heft and historical authenticity to the stories they tell.  The exhibition takes us on a tour of the artist’s work from her comic designs for the 1988 send-up of blaxploitation films “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” to the historical authenticity of the 2016 re-make of “Roots” to her most recent Afrofuturist costume inventions for “Black Panther” (2018) and “Wakanda Forever” (2022.) A two-time Oscar winner, Carter doesn’t merely dress her actors—she illuminates the characters and the story through her attention to detail and careful research, a process she describes as “reading about a time period, speaking to historians, studying the way the mind thought and body moved, and learning about innovative or ancient design techniques that can enhance the costume.”

“Malcolm X,” (1992) Directed by Spike Lee, installation with zoot suits for Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) and Shorty ((Spike Lee) designed by Ruth E. Carter.

The costumes in this exhibition often tell stories based on important events in Black American history such as “Malcolm X,” “Selma,” and  “Amistad.”  But her work on more fictional plots like “Coming 2 America,” “Dolemite is my Name” and even the Black Panther movies, deliver an equal sense of authenticity thanks to her extensive research into American fashion history and ethnographic studies from African sources.

Particularly impressive are some of the modern costumes designed by Carter for “Malcolm X.” The 2 zoot suits on display, with their exaggerated silhouettes and outrageous color palettes,  though extreme even on their own terms, are remarkably well-realized and convincing. The trajectory of Malcolm X’s life can be traced through Carter’s costumes, from his early origins as a young hipster through his subsequent ideological embrace of the National of Islam and culminating in his post-hajj conversion to Sunni Islam and civil rights activism.

“Selma” (2014) Directed by Ava DuVernay, installation with Sunday dresses designed by Ruth E. Carter for the young girls: Addie Mae Collins (Mikeria Howard,) Denise McNair (Trinity Simone,) Carol Rosamond Robertson ( Ebony Billups,) Cynthia Dionne Wesley (Nadej K. Bailey,) and Sarah Collins Rudolph (Jordan Rice.)

Another particularly poignant collection of delicate Sunday School dresses for the little girls in “Selma” shows Carter at her most subtly expressive. Each dress is finely detailed, from the voile and taffeta fabrics to the eyelet under-petticoats to the ribbon sashes. The  violent fate of the five is subtly foreshadowed and rendered more horrific by the butterfly-like fragility and beauty of these pastel confections.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2020) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) Carter’s design for the queen’s crown was based on the traditional South African woman’s marriage hat. Fabric designs were developed in cooperation with Austrian designer Julie Koerner.

Carter’s most recent costumes for “Black Panther” (2018) and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022) are the headliners in this exhibition, and deservedly so. Her already prominent reputation as a costume designer has been raised exponentially by the two high profile and highly profitable films.   (“Black Panther” grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide and broke numerous box office records, becoming the highest-grossing film directed by a Black filmmaker and the second highest grossing film of 2018.)

The Marvel Studio-derived adventures of king T’Challa and his royal clan, set in the mythical African nation of Wakanda, nevertheless take on a convincing reality based on Carter’s imaginative world-building. The films are a recent iteration of the cultural esthetic known as Afrofuturism, a term first coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993. What began as a more-or-less literary trend centered on science fiction has since made inroads into other genres such as fantasy and magic realism.  Historians point to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 science fiction novel “Invisible Man” as a precursor, and Octavia Butler’s novels are often associated with the genre.  Carter defines the movement for herself  as “using technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous people to believe and create without the limiting construct of slavery and colonialism.” She has ably combined her characteristic attention to historical and ethnic costume history with an inventive admixture of computer-generated and 3d-printed detail that makes the complex story believable on a visceral level.

“Black Panther” (2018) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Ayo Dora Milaje (Florence Kasumba) Carter’s costume designs for the Wakandan warrior clan, the Dora Milaje, were based on traditional dress of the Ndebele women of South Africa.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2020) Directed by Ryan Coogler. Namor, King of Talokan (Tenoch Huerta.) Carter’s designs for the inhabitants of the underwater kingdom were based upon Mexican and Mayan influences.

Carter has earned wide attention for her Black Panther costumes referencing Afrofuturism, but she is far from the only creative to contribute to the ongoing cultural conversation in the visual arts, music, and literature.   In 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City opened “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room.” The exhibition, organized in a “period room” installation format, envisioned the past, present, and future home of someone who lived in Seneca Village, a largely African-American settlement destroyed in the mid-1800’s to make room for Central Park. In 2022, the Hayward Gallery in London curated an exhibition of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora who draw on science fiction and myth to speculate on the world’s future.

Visual artists working in the fine arts on a smaller scale, like Nick Cave, Rashad Newsome, Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Yinka Shonibare and Ellen Gallagher, can be counted among those influenced by the Afrofuturist esthetic. But Carter, as a high-profile creative in a mass-market art form that reaches millions, may be one of the most prominent visualizers of the genre working now.  “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” provides an excellent opportunity for anyone who wants to feel the texture and sense the power of Afrofuturism to head down to the Wright Museum for a visit this fall and winter.

“Do the Right Thing” (1989) Directed by Spike Lee. Mookie (Spike Lee) Carter’s designs for the film are neon-bright and based on the red, yellow and green of the pan-African flag. Photo: K.A. Letts

Ruth E. Carter: Aftrofuturism in Costume Design   October 10 – March 31, 2024  

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