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New Academy Museum of Motion Pictures showcases Hollywood's best with diversity front and center

First visitors enjoy the Academy exhibit for Spike Lee in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept. 30, 2021, in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
First visitors enjoy the Academy exhibit for Spike Lee in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept. 30, 2021, in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Hollywood is showcasing some of its most celebrated works with a new movie museum.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles recently opened its doors for the public to explore everything from the “Citizen Kane” sled to tributes to some of the greats, like Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee.

The museum is considered the largest in the U.S. committed to the ins and outs of all things moviemaking. One of the key forces behind the massive undertaking is Jacqueline Stewart, chief artistic and programming officer at the museum.

“Be radically inclusive” is a key pillar of the museum’s mission statement. Stewart and the team ensured that diversity and inclusion were emphasized throughout the museum’s exhibits, she says.

Displaying the full tapestry of what Hollywood encompasses is important at any moment — but especially now, she says. From the start, the team knew that defaulting to conventional showcasing of film history would have done a disservice to the industry and all museum goers.

“We knew right away that that was not the way to accurately reflect that history,” she says, “nor would that be the way to really make all audiences feel as though we were speaking to them.”

They had to reconcile with paramount but tricky moments in filmmaking history, like how to handle insensitive or racist classics such as “Gone with the Wind.” Stewart says with help from the Inclusion Advisory Committee, a diverse group of film artists, the museum decided to take a nuanced and powerful approach by acknowledging “Gone with the Wind” actress Hattie McDaniel’s historic Oscar win.

Within the walls of the Oscars Room exhibit, 20 statuettes are on display — with one missing. Curators believe McDaniel’s award went missing in the ‘70s and was never found, she says.

In “violation of customary museum practice,” Stewart says a blank space was left where McDaniel’s Oscar should be. It’s the museum’s way of honoring the actress’ win as the first Black American to score an Academy Award but also “recognizing not just her struggles in the industry, which were substantial, but all of the Black and Brown artists who had been excluded [and] treated in stereotypical ways across film history,” she says.

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Curators in the museum worked intimately with the makers of the art on display. The director’s inspiration gallery, in “deep collaboration” with Spike Lee, unveils personal objects from the award-winning director’s massive collection of custom-framed film posters and objects gathered from artists he admires, Stewart says.

Working closely together, curators began to learn what’s behind Lee’s inspiration, like how influential Akira Kurosawa and the Japanese filmmaker’s 1950 movie “Rashomon” is to Lee.

“In many ways, as the conversations with him evolve, the gallery space began to look more and more like his personal space,” she says.

Because of the trust built between curators and Lee, the exhibit allows viewers to witness an “incredibly rare” inside look at the creative practice of a person who has “deep dialog with film history quite broadly,” she says.

Amid the excitement about the museum’s grand opening, Stewart was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, also known as a “Genius Grant.” The MacArthur Foundation says Stewart was among the fellowship recipients for “ensuring that the contributions of overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have a place in the public imagination.

In a way, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures offers her an opportunity to be part of showing the fuller scope of Hollywood history and reckoning with unpleasant times when the industry failed.

“The Academy recognizes through some really visible moments of protest, but also the voices of many of its own members, that this is a moment to engage in these conversations really of reckoning,” she says.

Stewart is particularly interested in younger museum goers and members of the entertainment industries who will learn and feel empowered by the sheer amount of stories by different film artists presented throughout the varying galleries.

“I hope that when we trace the histories of racist applications of hair and makeup, or we point to the sexism in animation over the years, that the people who are making those kinds of films now will learn something about the hurt and harm of those practices,” she says, “and that they will be agents for change now.”

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.