Night has fallen and people are sitting in a dark, crowded movie theater. Smoke from the audience is drifting in the air as the lights dim and people take their seats to enjoy the show. It’s the 1920s, the movie is silent and a scantily clad Josephine Baker dances her heart out in an almost frenetic way. Fast forward three decades to the 1950s, where an equally dazzling Dorothy Dandridge plays Carmen Jones and sings Bizet’s magnum opus.
These figures, as well as caricatures of Harlem Renaissance and other icons like Bessie Smith, aren’t in theaters anymore, but thanks to the Separate Cinema archive, they still serve as a time machine transporting viewers back to a segregated world where Black art flourished. Simultaneously, exaggerated racialized stereotypes of Black people and “others” are immortalized as promotional art that was shipped around the world as entertainment. From Carmen Jones to T’Challah of “Black Panther,” the Separate Cinema Archive chronicles African American film imagery and the American legacy of exporting Blackness through art.