Samuel Jackson and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997), dir. Quentin Tarantino (image courtesy the Everett Collection)

From trailblazing Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel to Halle Berry — the first (and so far the only) Black woman to win an Oscar for a leading role — Black actresses have toiled for decades in an industry that has preferred to place them on the sidelines of the story than at the center.

At the Museum of Modern Art, a recent film series, It’s All in Me: Black Heroines, exhibits an acute awareness of this cinematic history. A celebration of the more substantial roles that Black actresses have played from 1907 to 2018, the two-week program also reflects an interrogation of the complexities of those representations. Interestingly, this series — organized by MoMA staffers Steve Macfarlane, Dara Ojugbele and Marta Zeamanuel — comes on the heels of another recent Black woman-themed series at New York City’s Film Forum, curated by noted film historian Donald Bogle and experimental filmmaker and media preservationist Ina Archer.

From On Becoming a Woman: Mothers and Daughters Talking Together (1987), dir. Cheryl Chisolm (image courtesy of Women Make Movies)

“Each film in the series, in its own way, provides a more authentic connection to Black women’s expression, stories and experiences,” said Ojugbele, who is also a program manager at New York’s African Film Festival, in a recent interview about the film series.

Indeed the series highlights an expansive group of films in MoMA’s collection that defy tidy categorization. From its opening night program devoted to pioneering Black women directors like Julie Dash and Cheryl Dunye, to the heroines of its closers — Pam Grier, Regina Hall, and Odessa Warren Grey in Jackie Brown, Support the Girls, and Lime Kiln Club Field Day, respectively — It’s All in Me departs from Hollywood’s historic pigeonholing of Black actresses by quilting together the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these women have asserted themselves onscreen across a variety of genres.

From Strange Days (1995), dir. Kathryn Bigelow (courtesy the Everett Collection)

From One Mile from Heaven (1937), dir. Allan Dwan (courtesy the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

Even during the Depression-era, actresses like Fredi Washington (The Emperor Jones; Black and Tan), who didn’t have the same volume of opportunities as their white counterparts, could find a way to make their presence felt on and offscreen in spite of the underdeveloped supporting roles available to them. In One Mile from Heaven (1937), for example, a white woman reporter named Tex investigates the truth behind a light-skinned Black seamstress (Washington) raising a white girl as her own. Read through a 2020 lens, it’s a cautionary tale about the kind of white feminism that doesn’t have a problem stepping on women of color. Washington manages to pull off a real scene stealer in what amounts to the one major opportunity she’s afforded to tell audiences her side of the story. 

Meanwhile Miracle in Harlem (1948) is a classic whodunnit meets family drama with an all-Black cast that at the time spoke directly to Black moviegoers rather than a mainstream white audience. (There’s even a delightful introduction to the film from the late actor Ossie Davis.)

From Thulani (Workprint) (1984), dir. Thulani Davis (image courtesy the artist)

On the documentary side, poet Thulani Davis’s experimental performance film Thulani (Workprint) (1984) drives home the breadth of the series. Davis grounds the short film in extreme closeups of her face and  frames vary in texture with gray-scale, pink, and chartreuse overlays in various states of focus as Davis recites her poetry. 

The series also takes care to include cinematic features from filmmakers around the world including Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambety (La petite vendeuse de soleil The Little Girl who Sold the Sun), Brazil (Carlos Diegues’s Xica da Silva), Australia (Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls), Spain (María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s Baño Sagrado), and the United Kingdom (Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful). 

From Cycles (1989), dir. Zeinabu irene Davis (courtesy of Women Make Movies)

It’s All in Me is a celebration of the expansiveness of Black womens’ lives despite centuries of systemic oppression inside an industry that largely doesn’t value Black women. Just as we know that Black womens’ real, lived experiences are more diverse than what we’re used to seeing in the movies, the enduring impact of the series is much the same. Here the curators have succeeded in offering up a new kind of film canon where black heroines are no longer saddled with the undue burden of representation, but free to just be as they are in the world. And this is an achievement worth celebrating. 

It’s All in Me: Black Heroines continues through  March 5 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).

Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) is a freelance writer and cultural critic based in Los Angeles.