Photo Essays

37,000 Items of Black Film Memorabilia Acquired by the Lucas Museum

The collection includes items from silent era “race films,” an independent movement during which Black filmmakers told their own stories and distributed films to theaters serving Black viewers.

The Wiz (1978) (all images courtesy of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, from the Separate Cinema Archive)

The upcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has announced its first major acquisition. On Wednesday, January 15, the organizers behind the George Lucas-funded museum said in a statement that it had acquired the Separate Cinema Archive, one of the largest collections of Black movie memorabilia dating back to 1904 until 2019. The archive boasts some 37,000 items.

The collection includes a number of items from the silent movie days of so-called “race films,” an independent film movement in which Black filmmakers could tell their own stories, cast Black actors, and distribute their films to segregated movie theaters serving Black viewers. Collector John Duke Kisch began accumulating the artifacts from the film business back in the ’70s when it was not yet common for studios to hold onto props, posters, or other movie memorabilia. The collection will likely be an attraction for museum guests and scholars alike.

The Woman from the Folies Bergères (1927)
St. Louis Blues (1929)

Movie posters and photography make up a major part of the collection, and some examples offered include the stylish poster of 1943’s Cabin in the Sky starring Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters; Paul Robeson in regal attire on the cover of 1933’s Emperor Jones; tap-dancing legend Bill Robinson in his historic 1932 movie Harlem is Heaven, which features a number of entertainers from New York City’s Cotton Club; a poster for 1937’s “Underworld,” one of Oscar Micheaux’s many films from his independent career; and a rare 1927 German poster for the Josephine Baker movie The Woman from the Folies Bergères.

Do the Right Thing (1989)
Cabin in the Sky (1943)

The museum, which is still under construction in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park, is not expected to open until 2021. In the meantime, it has partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a film series on February 8, 2020, to celebrate the acquisition and its timing next to Black History Month. The series will screen Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz in the morning and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at the Cinemark Theater at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. It will be followed by a conversation with Jaqueline Stewart, professor and Turner Classic Movies host, and Ryan Linkof, curator of film at the Lucas Museum. Both of these movies are also represented in the Separate Cinema Archive.

Harlem is Heaven (1932)
Underworld (1937)
Emperor Jones (1933)
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