Given all the high-minded groups -- the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service, Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- behind it, Close Up in Black: African American Film Posters would have every right to suffer from a critical case of stiffness.
But the exhibition of movie placards, which opens January 20 at the Western Reserve Historical Society, is a genial and enlightening survey of genre cinema. Sure, there are lessons (on race, messages, and advertising) to be learned, but the nearly 100 posters on display tell us that black films really sold themselves well to their intended audience.
"These posters are vastly visual and are very exciting," says Marquette Folley, project director for Smithsonian's traveling exhibits. "You can see the tradition of [getting people] into a theater. There are many stories. You can track American film from old melodramas to where we are now with Monster's Ball."
Close Up in Black spans eight decades, gathering posters from 1921 (The Crimson Skull) to 2001 (Training Day). Included are ads for The Lure of a Woman, Harlem Is Heaven, Cabin in the Sky, Porgy and Bess, Shaft, and The Color Purple, among others.
The posters are separated into six sections: Race Movies, Better Than White Voices, Message Movies, Crossing Over and Black, Blaxploitation, and Mosaics in Black and White.
"We're in the business of telling America stories, so we look at it broadly," Folley explains. "But we have a point to make. It's very important to step back and look at people of color who fell in love with the medium.
"Images are powerful, and popular culture has a way of telling us who we will be, who we can be, and listening to who we say we want to be," she goes on. "Popular culture is very powerful, and it behooves us to look at how we've been reflected."
While the posters in Close Up in Black were used originally as promotional tools, they now serve as documents of race targeting through the years, chronicling the black cowboys of The Crimson Skull, the black fighter pilots of The Flying Ace (featuring "an all-colored cast"), and the black gangsters of Underworld (starring "Slick" Chester). It's a long, hard line from 1929's Hearts in Dixie -- whose poster features a bunch of banjo-strumming, shucking-and-jiving Southern folks -- to 1970's Watermelon Man ("The Uppity Movie," its tagline claims).
"This is a journey through American film history," Folley says. "[And] it's a metaphor for our journey. Because America is an immigrant culture, nearly every American has a level of stereotyping caricature that's part of a national humor voice. One of the most resonant and significant journeys is the one that's colored in black and white. This is a refractor of ourselves and an influence to who we are."
As Shaft would say: Right on.