Associate Professor Racquel Gates Guest Curates New Exhibition for the Museum of the Moving Image

Angeline Dimambro
March 31, 2022

Associate Professor Racquel Gates is the guest curator of Icons: Framing Images of Black Women on Movie Posters, a current ongoing exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image.

The exhibit presents promotional material from the 1930s through the 2010s for American films with Black women in featured roles. As the official exhibition statement describes, these posters and lobby cards—for such genres as “race movies,” contemporary independent, and Hollywood blockbuster films—serve as powerful reminders that despite a fraught history of relegating Black women to stereotypes and simplistic tropes, the motion picture industry has not only recognized but also often relied upon Black women’s star power to represent and sell films. More than simply marketing tools to drive box-office sales, such images embody the best and the worst of America’s racial histories, raising questions about race and gender in film, as well as in American society at large. Taken together, they capture the contradictions, power, and pleasure inherent in the Black female image as a cinematic icon.

Gates wrote an original essay to accompany her curation of the exhibition. The essay reflects on Black female iconicity as a concept and its implications for our understanding of film and film history:

“Black women occupy a fraught position within American cinema: their iconic performances form the backbone of so many memorable films, yet the film industry’s ongoing racism often relegates them to stereotypical roles and simplistic tropes,” Gates’ essay begins. “Despite this, Black women have imbued their roles and cinematic history itself with creative ingenuity, bringing out the best of paltry material and elevating simplistic character types with nuance and originality.”

The exhibition features images from Life Goes On (1938), Straight to Heaven (1939), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), The Watermelon Woman (1996), Pariah (2011), and several others.

“The posters that illustrate this essay (and are currently on view at Museum of the Moving Image) were selected to highlight Black women’s centrality in the story of American filmmaking, and serve as correctives to the oft-told story that Black actors and actresses are not marketable on their own.”

Read Gates’ complete essay here

Icons is an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image. Click here to find further information about how you can attend the show.

Racquel Gates received her PhD from Northwestern University’s department of Screen Cultures. She also holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Her research focuses on Blackness and popular culture, with special attention to discourses of taste and quality. She is the author of Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture (Duke, 2018), where she argues that some of the most disreputable representations in Black popular culture can strategically pose questions about Blackness, Black culture, and American society. In 2020, she was named an Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She used the grant to support work on her next book, Hollywood Style and the Invention of Blackness. Committed to bringing together film studies in an academic context and film appreciation in more popular settings, Gates maintains a robust public engagement. Her work appears in both scholarly and popular publications, some of which include The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Review of Books, Film QuarterlyTelevision & New Media, as well as other journals and collections. She is also a regular contributor to numerous podcasts, television programs, and recorded film interviews.