History of African Americans in Cinema at Ethnic Heritage Museum

By David Ruffin 
Ethnic Heritage Museum

ROCKFORD — On Sunday, August 13, the African American Gallery of the Ethnic Heritage Museum will unveil its newest exhibit, “The History of African Americans in Cinema.”

African Americans have had a long and rather complex history in the American motion picture industry. Early depictions of Black men and women were confined to demeaning stereotypes. From the mid-1910s to the 1930s a few film companies (some of them Black-owned) were established with the sole purpose of putting on “all-colored cast” productions that included positive and diverse roles for the actors.

Between the 1930s and 1940s, there was a shift in the racial landscape, the Great Migration and mainstream Hollywood began to reflect this demographic change in its films. The growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement brought more changes in Hollywood. The 1950s saw the advent of large productions featuring all-Black casts and the beginnings of a shift in the way in which Black and White actors shared screen time.

In the 1970s, the variety of opportunities open to African American actors, directors, writers, and producers continued to expand. The films from this decade presented Black audiences with new and multifaceted depictions of the Black community. The ways in which the motion picture industry has portrayed African Americans over the majority of the 20th century has evolved in a more positive direction.

This exhibit traces the complex and contested history of African Americans in the motion picture industry. Some items on display are courtesy of the African Americans in Film Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

This exhibit also features Juan Antonio, a Rockford native who plays “Philip” on Fox’s hit television show Empire (2015). Juan has appeared in Murder in the First (2014) and Gemini (2017) and has done guest spots on “Modern Family” and “How to get away with Murder”. His breakout role was the lead in Beyonce Knowles’s “Best Thing I Never Had” music video. Juan has appeared in two Super Bowl commercials and on the pages of numerous magazines.

The exhibit spotlights The Great Banana Pie Caper (1978) shot almost entirely in Rockford and was named Best Christian Children Film by the Christian Film Distributors Association. Produced by Quadrus Communication a corporate adjunct of WQRF 39, the Great Banana Pie Caper stars Rockford native Christopher Hanserd and his mother, Thomasina Hanserd. It is the story of an unlikely pair of heroes in a zany bake-off and attempted delivery of 75 banana cream pies while being pursued by a gang of bullies.

Join us on Sunday, August 13 to kick-off the “History of African American in Cinema” exhibit with a special viewing of St. Louis Blues. It will be shown in the Lockwood Gallery starting at 2:30 p.m. St. Louis Blues is a 1958 American film classic broadly based on the life of W. C. Handy, the Father of Blues. It starred jazz and blues greats Nat “King” Cole, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and Barney Bigard, as well as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and actress Ruby Dee. The film’s soundtrack used over ten of Handy’s songs including the title song. Bring the whole family, sit back and enjoy this musical classic with a free bag of popcorn.

“The History of African Americans in Cinema” is an enlightening and entertaining exhibit for children of all ages. The exhibit will be on display every Sunday from August 13th to mid-November 2017.

The Ethnic Heritage Museum and Graham-Ginestra House are open every Sunday, 2-4 p.m. General admission to the museums is $8 individual, $15 per family or free to members. The museum is handicap accessible with the entrance on Loomis Street – on street parking available. There is additional parking in the lot on the corner of Main and Morgan Streets next to the Graham-Ginestra House. Tour can be arranged my calling 815-962-7402. For more information visit ethnicheritagemuseum.org.

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