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These Posters for Historic Black Films Are Amazing

They're part of a new show at the Smithsonian's African-American history museum

Photograph courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In a new exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, movie posters are the main feature. Titled Now Showing, the collection highlights movie posters from throughout the history of black cinema. The display, which features more than 40 works, explores the way poster designs draw in potential viewers and what they reveal both about the characters and stories, and society at large.

“Film can serve as a peek into ideals about culture and society,” Rhea L. Combs, the curator and head of the museum’s Center For African American Media Arts, said in a press release. “This exhibition introduces visitors to films featuring African Americans they may be less familiar with, and at the same time it recognizes some of the most historically and culturally relevant films made over a 70-year period.”

The show, which opened on November 22, is also the Smithsonian museum’s first exhibit to incorporate augmented reality. Using their phones, visitors can interact eight of the posters featured and learn more about them. Check out some highlights from the show below.

Photographs courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Following the release of his fifth album, Black Moses, soul legend Isaac Hayes filmed a live show in Atlanta, Georgia, and released this concert movie in 1973.

The 1944 race film, Go Down, Death! was inspired by a poem from author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson. The movie follows a man in a small Southern town who tries to trap the new reverend in a scandal, and gets caught in his own moral dilemma.

The Flying Pilot is a 1926 silent film that tells the story of a black fighter pilot who returns home from the first world war as a hero. The film was ahead of its time: it was made well before African Americans were allowed to serve as pilots in the US Armed Forces, beginning in 1940.

The 1943 musical film, Cabin in the Sky, was an adaptation of a hit Broadway show. The movie follows a gambler, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, whose soul gets caught between heaven and hell after he is shot, and features stars like Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.

Starring Ralph Cooper, the 1937 movie, Dark Manhattan, features a tragic love story between a Harlem numbers racketeer and a nightclub singer, whose romance is cut short when a rival gang tries to fight their way in.

In the 1937 film, Lem Hawkins’ Confession, which was loosely based on a real case, a black man is wrongly arrested and tried for the murder of a white woman, but the real perpetrator–a white man–is revealed during the process.

Now Showing will be on view at the National Museum of African American History and Culture Until November 2020; Free.

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Nathan Diller
Editorial Fellow

Nathan is an editorial fellow at Washingtonian. Originally from Nashville, he graduated from Columbia Journalism School with a master’s degree in 2019. His work has also appeared in SPIN, NYLON, and Nashville Lifestyles.