Making Faces is a study of screen characters and the performers who embodied them. Focusing on popular American films from the 1910s to the 1970s—from the era of silent movies to that of blaxploitation—this exhibition traces the attempts of commercial film studios to depict difference onscreen. Drawn from MoMA’s extensive collection of film stills, Making Faces presents images that Hollywood studios used to sell their vision—how they thought people should look, dress, and behave—to audiences. Explicitly created for distribution to newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets to advertise upcoming releases, film stills are highly constructed images that functioned as templates for these Hollywood ideals. Rather than simply highlighting major stars in iconic roles, Making Faces focuses on Hollywood’s portrayals of “outsiders” in films, and the various—sometimes contentious—ways in which race and gender were represented onscreen. The selected images showcase performers who rebelled against the accepted cultural norms of the time as well as those who found ways to work within a system that exploited them.
Looking at these images allows us to consider how Hollywood communicated its ideals through costumes, makeup, and actors’ gestures, posture, and other visual cues. Viewing them today raises a number of questions: How do these images reflect changing attitudes toward race and gender onscreen from decade to decade? How did women and people of color wield power and exert agency in a society dominated by white men? What did it mean to be a black man in 1913, or a queer woman in 1933? And, in turn, how do these performances affect the way we remember history’s attitudes toward different groups?
Organized by Ashley Swinnerton, Collection Specialist, and Dessane Cassell, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Film.