In November 2019, the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) opened Now Showing: Posters from African American Movies, a temporary exhibition exploring the art of movie posters, specifically examining films by black filmmakers or works featuring black performers. The exhibition is on view November 22, 2019  December 5, 2021.

Poster with an illustration of a man, arms raised, holding a microphone. He is wearing gold chains across his waist and chest. Title information above and below image [THE BLACK MOSES / OF SOUL / ISAAC / HAYES / special] Image and title information on a purple and black patterned rectangular background.

The Black Moses of Soul, 1973
Chuck Johnson, director
Aquarius Films

Gift of Leith Adams

Now Showing recognizes that good design matters and that film posters straddle an interesting role within the film industry; they serve as both art and advertising. Through the design, movie posters can help frame ideas, create moods, and stoke interest in the film and its main characters. This exhibition recognizes the fine line of art and commerce; it celebrates the Museum’s sizable poster collection, and offers an abbreviated visual history of African Americans in cinema.     

The exhibition objects are culled in large part from A Cinema Apart: African American Film Memorabilia, (Larry Richards Collection), a poster collection acquired by the museum in 2014 that includes more than 700 film posters and lobby cards. Now Showing features original posters and lobby cards and select ephemera from the Museum’s permanent collection. It introduces audiences to some of the pioneers of black cinema, highlights the Museum’s poster collection and its continued dedication to visual culture, and it shows how films geared toward African American audiences have been presented over the years.

The exhibition is organized into four main sections:

A movie poster with a still image from the film A movie poster with a still image from the film with a man lying on the ground with his head on a woman's lap while he looks up at a policeman standing above him. Below the image in large black text are the words [DARK / MANHATTAN]. There is a red trapezoid shape below with more black text that reads [with / ALL-STAR COLORED CAST].

Film Pioneers

This section introduces early African American filmmakers who made movies for black audiences that were enthusiastically received when most depictions of black people were stereotypical.

Dark Manhattan, 1937
Harry Fraser (1889–1974), director
Ralph Cooper (1908–1992), director (uncredited)
Sack Amusement Enterprises
From A Cinema Apart: African American Film Memorabilia

Photo credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

A poster showing the face of a woman with red hair and blue eyes and another woman wearing a white head wrap and dark clothing. It says [Pinky] in large script.

The Problem of the Color Line

This section features films that have attempted, albeit at times crudely, to examine the complexities of what it means to live in a society where being black and passing for white may bring with it troubling and tragic consequences.

Pinky, 1949 Elia Kazan (1909–2003), director
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
From A Cinema Apart: African American Film Memorabilia

Photo credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

A poster with an illustration of a man and a woman wearing white cowboy hats. Below them is blue text that reads [HERBERT JEFFRIES / IN / HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE]. In the lower right is anillustration of a man riding a white horse that has lifted its legs into the air. Next to this illustration is blue text that reads [WITH / MANTAN / MORELAND / F.E. MILLER / CONNIE HARRIS / THE FOUR TONES / & / THE FOUR BLACKBIRDS / ALL COLORED / STAR CAST].

A Star is Born

Here we explore how the increased interest in film helped many celebrities reach an expanded sense of fame and recognition. These increased opportunities were often a source of pride for black audiences wanting to have greater representation in film.

Harlem on the Prairie, 1937
Sam Newfield (1899–1964), director
Toddy Pictures Company

Photo credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

A poster showing a bright orange-red background and features a black-and-white photographic image of a child wearing a straw hat, holding a large piece of watermelon. The image has been torn in two and separated to reveal a larger, two-tone partially abstract image of a boy against a yellow rectangular background.

Black Power & “Blaxploitation”

This section highlights the proliferation of films geared specifically toward black audiences during the late 1960s – 1970s.

No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, 1986
David Loeb Weiss (1911–2005), director
The Cinema Guild

Photo credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Gay Young and Daniel Schindler

For the first time at the Museum, Now Showing will include Augmented Reality. Audiences will be able to explore more information about select objects through the use of state-of-the-art interactive technology. 

Exhibition Highlights

Explore some of the collection items from the Now Showing exhibition.

A lobby card with a color photograph of two women and a man standing at a white picket fence. To the right is a black-and-white illustration of a man in tuxedo and top hat dancing with one of the women at the fence. In the bottom right corner is a black-and-white illustration of a drum set, clarinet, and trumpet, with the hands and faces of the musicians just visible.

Lobby card for Cabin in the Sky, 1943

A tinted photograph of a scene from the film depicting a large congregation seated in pews inside a church. A large stained-glass window is on the far wall. The black and white image has had bright colors added to the stained-glass window and the clothing of some of the congregation members. Above the congregation is printed [ALFRED N. SACK / REVERENTLY PRESENTS GO DOWN, DEATH!].

Lobby card for Go Down, Death!, 1944

A lobby card with a color image of a woman on the right side with wavy brown hair and a blue top with green pants sitting with her left hand up to her mouth. Another woman on the left has curly hair and is wearing a brimmed hat, pearl earrings, a brown dress, gloves, and a fur stole. There is a blue box below it with white text that reads [CLAUDETTE / Colbert / in / Fannie Hurst’s GREAT NOVEL / IMITATION of LIFE].

Lobby card for Imitation of Life, 1949

This lobby card features a colored image of a man kneeling over the body of a woman on the floor. The man wears blue denim overalls and a checked shirt. Above the scene is written [A. BURTON RUSSELL / presents / "LEM HAWKINS' CONFESSION" / Based on the Sensational / "Stanfield / Murder / Case" / Written and Directed by / OSCAR MICHEAUX].

Lobby card for Lem Hawkins’ Confession, 1935

A lobby card with an illustration of a man looking down at his hands. Above him are three heads looking in different directions. Within the picture on the lobby card in the bottom left corner it reads "A/ drama of/ real life from/ The Readers Digest/ 20 Pages That Shocked the World!" Outside of the image and in the left border of the lobby card it reads "For/Twenty/Tormenting/ Years/ They/ Lived/ A/ Lie!/ Lost/ Boundaries."

Lobby card for Lost Boundaries, 1949

Eight vignettes are arranged around the center, and each has a small card with a caption explaining the scene. At center is black text that reads [THE SURPRISE CREATION / OF THE CENTURY / " A PLAY WITH A PUROSE" / the Most Elaborate All-Colored Production / Ever Conceived / Full of Thrills-Punch-Action-Lavish Scenes / Gorgeous Gowns / Six Months in the Making and at / a Tremendous Cost / A PRINCE OF HIS RACE].

Herald for A Prince of His Race, 1926

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