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Koehnline poster exhibit celebrates black history at the movies

Posters from early black films are display Koehnline Museum Art exhibit  'Gems from Koehnline: African-American Movie Posters'| HANDOUT PHOTO

Posters from early black films are on display at the Koehnline Museum of Art in the exhibit "Gems from the Koehnline: African-American Movie Posters"| HANDOUT PHOTO

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‘Gems from the
Koehnline: African-American Movie Posters’

When: Feb. 6-March 21

Where: Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Rd., Des Plaines

Info: (847) 635-2633;

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Updated: February 5, 2014 5:50PM

Initially shut out of Hollywood and then given limited access, African-American actors, writers, directors and producers soon realized they could make their own films for their own audience.

It did, however, take a few decades for them to find their own voice.

An eclectic collection of posters for these early African-American independent films are on view through March 21 in honor of Black History Month at the Koehnline Gallery of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.

“They didn’t give up,” said Nathan Harpaz, curator of the Koehnline Gallery. “When Hollywood said, ‘No, no, no,’ they said, ‘We can do this ourselves.’”

And so they did, generating a wealth of films that mirrored Hollywood releases in typical genres of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s — westerns, comedies, gangster movies, World War II dramas and musical extravaganzas. But with “All-Colored” casts.

The Koehnline collection, the result of an anonymous gift, features 40 large- and standard-sized posters from 1938 to 1957, with one anomalous addition from the era of Blaxploitation (“Countdown at Kusini,” 1976). Titles include “Prison Bait” (1939), “Harlem Rides the Range” (1939), “ “Mantan Messes Up” (1946), “Rhythm in a Riff” (1947), “House-Rent Party” (1946) and “Where’s My Man, To-Nite?” (1943). Clips from some of the films will be screened in a mini-theater inside the gallery.

“These films were made because African-Americans were discriminated against in Hollywood,” said Harpaz, noting that the trend began in the silent era when studios hired white actors to play black characters in black-face makeup. “During the ’60s and ’70s, the films started to change in character because of the civil-rights movement, but their heaviest period of production was during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”

Social consciousness, Harpaz added, was not a requirement.

“They weren’t trying to reflect the African-American experience as much as they were trying to match the mainstream movie industry,” he said. “Here and there you can see relevant themes, but in general they’re just trying to copy what the Hollywood studios were doing.”

Of course, at the same time, they were paving the way and developing the audience for far more radical films to come.

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