Smithsonian’s New African-American History Museum: Virtual Tour

Posted on September 6, 2016 at 3:57 pm

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest addition to the Smithsonian, is finally opening this month. Free tickets for the first few weeks are already gone, but everyone can take a virtual tour of exhibits like “Musical Crossroads” featuring artifacts like Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and an immersive visual presentation. Musical performances on the surrounding screens include artists as varied as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Outkast. In the Sports Gallery, a life-size sculpture records the moment at the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air on the medal podium and tributes to legends like Michael Jordan and the Williams sisters. The museum’s theater is named for major donor Oprah Winfrey.

Copyright Smithsonian 2016
Copyright Smithsonian 2016

As visitors wait for the elevator, they will view a wall of thought-provoking and inspiring quotes. And the casket of slain teenager Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, will be on view, with a recording of his mother telling the story.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch wrote in Smithsonian Magazine:

I think the museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift. There will be moments where visitors could cry as they ponder the pains of the past, but they will also find much of the joy and hope that have been a cornerstone of the African-American experience. Ultimately, I trust that our visitors will draw sustenance, inspiration and a commitment from the lessons of history to make America better. At this time in our country, there is a great need for contextualization and the clarity that comes from understanding one’s history. I hope that the museum can play a small part in helping our nation grapple with its tortured racial past. And maybe even help us find a bit of reconciliation.

The museum pays tribute to the environment as well, seeking to become the first Gold LEED-certified building on the National Mall. Solar cells on the building’s roof produce electricity to heat water for the structure. Other sustainability-driven features include the green roof along Constitution Avenue and the water recycling and filtration system. The three-tiered trapezoid shape of the bronze corona that wraps around the outside of the glass building is inspired by a sculpture from the early 20th-century Yoruban artist Olowe of Ise of a woman wearing a three-tiered crown. Most of the building is underground, so that the structure does not overwhelm the nearby Washington Monument and other icons of the Mall.

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Cadillac Records

Posted on December 4, 2008 at 5:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language including crude sexual references and racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Guns, brutal beating, drug overdose
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 5, 2008

In the words of Etta James, at last.

At last, albeit imperfectly, the extraordinary story of the rise and fall of Chess Records has been given the loving attention it deserves. Magnificent performances and soul-shaking music make up for some narrative stumbles and dubious fictions in this, the higher profile of two films this year about the legendary Chicago record label.

Adrian Brody plays Leonard Chess, a Jewish immigrant who was one of the first to record and market the work of black artists in the 1950s, when it was still called “race music.” With talent like Mississippi Delta blues player Muddy Waters, harmonica virtuoso Little Walter, powerhouse vocalist Howlin’ Wolf, the silky soul chanteuse Etta James, and proto-rocker Chuck Berry, Chess recordings established the foundation for “race music” to become blues, then rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll.

That is a lot to get through in one movie, and if at times it descends into VH1 “Behind the Music”-isms, muddled chronology (the Rolling Stones show up before the early Elvis), and distortions of fact, it is understandable. The movie touches on some of the difficult issues of race and gender without much depth, as when the performers, limited by lack of education and the bigotry of the day, begin to resent the paternalism — and sloppy bookkeeping — of Chess. Generations of oppression and naivete about business make them suspicious that he is keeping too much of their money. And dramatically it falls victim to what I call the “and then” syndrome, piling events on top of each other without a strong narrative arc.

Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Gabrielle Union as his significant other Geneva, and Mos Def as Berry are outstanding as always; they are among the finest actors and most mesmerizing performers in Hollywood. Columbus Short, an appealing presence in “Stomp the Yard” and “This Christmas” is a revelation as Little Walter. And Beyonce Knowles (who also produced) gives James a gritty authenticity this glossy pop star has not reached before. What matters here is the characters and the music and in both categories the performances really deliver.

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