Coloring Independently: 1940s African American Film Stills from the Collection of the California African American Museum featured a selection of more than eighty film stills and related photographs from the museum’s unique collection surrounding African American films from the 1940s, a time of limited character roles and little access to the mainstream movie industry. Typically referred to as “race films,” these independent productions were created with black casts and intended for African American audiences. By spotlighting this exceptional collection, the California African American Museum explored the rich history of black film that is too often forgotten today while also foregrounding the meanings of black self-representation in an age of oppression.
Coloring Independently assessed its audience based on previous surveys, written visitor comments, and staff interactions in order to address a topic that would be new to them and of particular interest to visitors in the entertainment mecca of Southern California. Through these historic films, the exhibit presented compelling social history as well as a fascinating look into past popular culture through music, fashion, and slang. Photographs, films, a mock movie set, and actor biographies painted a vivid picture of California’s vibrant black arts and entertainment scene that thrived despite persistent barriers and systematic racism. The opening also hosted a rare opportunity to see the first ever “race film” from 1913, found recently in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.
The California African American Museum utilized a fascinating collection that attracted new audiences from their diverse community while also tackling a very timely topic. As Hollywood and American media today face increased scrutiny over diversity and minority representation, it becomes all the more important to recognize the efforts and successes of these pioneering black artists. Black cinema in the 1940s was more than just entertainment: it was an important tool of empowerment and representation that helped black communities create their own stories and cultural meaning. Coloring Independently explored this essential American story in a way that resonated with contemporary museumgoers and issues.