Rich, illustrious, and vibrant is how Ron Finley describes the old black movie posters used to promote black films in Europe. “Our images [here in the United States] were horrible in comparison,” he notes. “At the time, we had some of our biggest stars playing and they are not depicted on the posters. There are these sketchy figures — like with Sergeant Rutledge, starring Woody Strode. Here he’s on the corner of the poster. In Italy he is the poster. Overseas you could find romantic posters of [black] couples [advertising a movie]. Here there would be a carnival shot [of the same movie] and no indication that it was a love story.”
It was those stark differences in presentation design that encouraged Finley, a custom clothing designer with his own company, to start collecting posters 13 years ago. His oldest is an 1890 French advertisement for a chocolate company, Félix Potin. The bulk of his collection is movie posters from several countries printed in several languages. Black Orpheus is the movie for which he has the most varied posters — 12 from different countries.
“When I started I had this grand idea that I was going to collect every movie poster ever printed with a black person on it,” says Finley. He found commercial art a provocative study in what images would motivate audiences to see a film. “Particularly at a time when movie theaters heavily relied on these images to bring in audiences, it’s interesting to see what they did here, what they did in Spain, what they did in Paris — and to compare those images.”
Finley owns thousands of posters and has spent several hundred thousand dollars purchasing, restoring, and framing them. “I have a movie poster from Josephine Baker’s first movie, Sirens of the Tropics (1927). I wouldn’t let it go for under $200,000.” The most he’s ever spent was $15,000. The least? He’s gotten posters for free. “People are now realizing that there’s a market. But for a long time, these posters — particularly the black ones — weren’t valued.
“There weren’t as many theaters in the ’40s and ’50s,” he explains, “so there was no need for the movie houses to print as many posters.” Recycling efforts during WWII claimed many posters as well. “The reason we have the posters we do have is because many of the movie houses did not send their posters back like they were supposed to.”
“But for me,” Finley continues, “it’s not just about collecting, but securing some of our history.”
SHOP AROUND: Today there are a number of Websites selling posters, including www.night owlbooks.com, www.vintagemovie- posters.com and www.allposters.com. Finley has never bought posters online and suggests visiting flea markets and vintage haunts.
SECURE YOUR INVESTMENT: Restoring and conservation framing can cost thousands of dollars because all materials need to be acid free. Posters should also be protected under a UV reflective glass. “Prior to the ’70s, posters were printed on a high acid content paper and that’s why so many of them were lost,” says Finley. Never