My first formal conversation with Ron Finley took place while he sat on a ladder in the middle of the white room where he was setting up for his new historical movie poster exhibit at the Museum of African American Art in the Crenshaw district. As he relaxed on the fourth step of the ladder, I asked Finley, a movie poster collector, what his technical title for this latest project was.
He straightened up, looked me square in the eyes, and said “The King.”
To call Finley “eccentric” would not do justice to his expansive tastes and eclectic style.
Finley, who declined to give his exact age butis old enough to distinctly remember the 1965 Watts Riots and sport a patch of white hair on the side of his goatee, has been collecting movie posters since the 1980s.
Finley began developing his new exhibit titled “Travels Through Blackness: The Ron Finley Collection of International Movie Posters, 1920s to 1970s” about five months ago, working with museum staff and his good friend and neighbor Michelle Thomas.
“Ron is an anomaly. You can’t take him at face value at all,” Thomas said of the South Los Angeles local, whose sartorial choices include camouflage jackets and Fivefinger shoes, and whose preferred mode of transportation is a Can-Am Spyder – a motorcycle-type vehicle with two wheels in the front and one in the back.
Finley’s eye-catching lifestyle choices are also reflected in the kinds of posters he collects.
“I like big, expansive, exciting, colorful posters,” said Finley, this time talking with me face-to-face at a table.
Some of the posters in Finley’s collection are as large as billboards, and a few of the bigger ones in this particular exhibit are wider than a person’s arm-span.
His current exhibit features 34 international posters, which are only “the tip of the iceberg of his collection,” according Byron Jamerson, a staff member at the Museum of African American Art.
Attaining and maintaining his collection has exacted a price.
“It doesn’t come easy,” Finley said. “You have to raise the money to get the posters up. You have to get on your knees, and you beg to do it.”
“The framing alone of those posters was $10,000,” said Jamerson, “and the money was donated to get that done.”
According to Daniel Strebin, a consultant and technical expert of vintage movie posters, said that an average vintage poster can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000, and some of the ones in Finley’s collection can cost over a hundred-thousand dollars each.
“He seems to be the best collector of black cinema in the world,” Strebin said. “There is only one other person who has a collection that equals his.”
Finley has been collecting movie posters for twenty years and can’t recall how—or why– he got started. A black man of average height and thin physique, Finley said it may have had something to do with a desire to connect with his African American heritage in a grand way, but he isn’t quite sure.
“I’ve been asking myself that question for years and years – why did you do this to your life?” he said. “One day I started off with this goal, and I wanted every movie poster that had a black person on it. It was kind of crazy.”
It did not take Finley long to decide to switch his focus from collecting every poster with an African American on it to simply buying those that had historical importance or with African Americans in lead roles.
“This is meant to be shared,” he said. “I’m a preserver. I get the posters restored, and I try to leave them in a better state for the next generation.”
Having his posters displayed at this latest exhibit is just one of the ways that Finley is able to share his historical collection with countless others.
In fact, thousands of people visit the Museum of African American Art each year, and a few hundred, including Michelle Thomas, Finley’s three sons, and 70s African American movie star Bernie Casey, attended the opening reception for the exhibit on February 4.
“I was overwhelmed. A lot of my friends and family came through for me,” Finley said. “It was heartwarming.”
While the exhibit came together beautifully in the end, Finley and the museum staff had to overcome some disagreements along the way. When asked what it was like working with Finley, Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, president of the Board of Directors for the Museum of African American Art, said, “Like most artists – challenging. We get the exhibit done because we have policies, and we share it with the artist.”
Finley took issue with Fontenot-Jamerson’s account.
“I’m not difficult. I just want it to be how I intended,” he said. “It was never our show. It’s my show because my name’s on it. I’m the one who’s going to get the criticism or the praise.”
Still Finley is not one to shy away from conflict. Readers may recall a civic battle that ensued last summer over a community vegetable garden he planted on a scappy patch of city-owned land in front of his home in South Los Angeles. Finley was cited, and the garden was left to dry up and die. He’d had a similar battle with the city over banana trees a few years earlier.
“Ron has many facets to him,” Thomas said. “He is a master gardener. In another segment he is a designer and merchandiser. He’s one of the largest collectors for black cast film posters in the nation. All of these facets tie into who he is.”
Despite any conflicts, Finley is most certainly getting praise for his latest display.
After the opening, gushing comments filled the exhibit’s Facebook page.
“Thank you. Your collection was a joy to see,” wrote Amanda Grant, one of the group’s members, and Reggae Moms, another member, posted, “AMAZING event.”
“Travels Through Blackness: The Ron Finley Collection of International Movie Posters, 1920s to 1970s” runs through April 22
Finley plans to keep collecting, educating and inspiring far past that date, even if some of it is unintentional.
“I’m not out to change the world,” he said. “It just happens.”