Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service


Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.


Close Up in Black: African American Film Posters

Close Up in Black: African American Film Posters took a historic look at the role of African American cinema through the vibrant medium of the film poster. From the golden age of "race movies" to the present, these artworks illuminate the impact of African Americans-performers, writers, designers, directors, and producers-on screen and behind the scenes.

The 90 framed posters featured in Close Up in Black were part of the Margaret Herrick Library/Edward Mapp Collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which published the companion book of the same name in 2002.

During the industry's infancy, pioneering African American film companies, such as Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Micheaux Film Corporation, proved the need for and viability of black cinema. These "race movies" offered African Americans starring roles in westerns, comedies, musicals, mysteries, melodramas, and crime films. They conveyed messages of racial uplift, and let black audiences see themselves woven into popular American mythology. Both films and posters were a welcome reaction to the negative racial stereotypes permeating mainstream film at the time.

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s coincided with the arrival of the "talkies" in Hollywood. Doors opened for many African American performers, including Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, and other musical stars from New York theaters and nightclubs. African American culture began to be depicted more positively on screen, and the next two decades saw more and more performances by talented black Americans. After World War II, Hollywood confronted issues of racism and social injustice in films that awakened the consciousness of the nation. In today's movies, race is no longer central, but rather just one element among many that are woven into stories of love, compassion, evil, and perseverance.

Originally designed for promotion and publicity, the posters in Close Up in Black documented much more than film content. These ephemeral remnants reveal our cultural history, while imparting a bit of the opulent energy and glamour of the movies. In celebrating American film and the art of the film poster, Close Up in Black pays homage to the African American filmmakers, entertainers, and artists who struggled to make their statement on film—the 20th century’s brave new medium.

This Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition toured from 2003-2005.

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