The Turner Classic Movies series “Silent Sunday Nights” is a celebration of some of the triumphs of early filmmaking, and its new host is a Chicago native whose love of the movies goes all the way back to her childhood.
“I had an aunt who was a really avid movie fan and a night owl like me,” said Jacqueline Stewart. She’s a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, and the founder of the South Side Home Movie preservation project profiled by WTTW news earlier this year. “Her enthusiasm about these films, and the gossip she had about the romances, and how people moved to different studios, and all that … was really memorable to me.”
When Stewart was finishing her bachelor’s degree, she became interested in analyzing the work of the then-emerging filmmaker Spike Lee.
“His voice was so original, his style was just so avant-garde. ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ – shot in black and white, has this kind of disjointed narrative about it. Those things were really striking and seemed wonderful to me. At the same time, his films seemed to have a lot of problems when it came to gender representation. There are aspects of his films that seemed profoundly sexist to me,” Stewart said.
She ended up writing a thesis on Lee’s films and pursuing film studies for her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. While Lee emerged during a resurgence of black cinema in the U.S. during the ‘90s, Stewart says the history of film shows there have been many fallow periods, too.
“I think it’s been a real frustration for black film artists not to have the consistency. I don’t think it’s dissimilar to the ways that we see ebbs and flows in our political landscape. It’s really instructive, it’s always important, and this is what I hope that my teaching and my research demonstrate. Even in those moments of ebb, we have to recognize that there have been moments of great productivity and progress. We can learn from what happened and try to create ways to connect with those strides and to keep pushing forward,” Stewart said.
Her new role hosting “Silent Sunday Nights” allows her to highlight early female film artists and filmmakers of color whose contributions to moviemaking may not be well-known to viewers.
“I shared with (TCM) that I was really keen to feature works by Oscar Micheaux, who was a pioneering African American filmmaker. He made more than 40 films between 1918 and 1948. Half of those were silent, but only three of the silent films survive,” Stewart said.
And this coming Sunday, TCM will show the 1912 film “Cleopatra,” starring and produced by Helen Gardner. “Helen Gardner was the first actor, male or female, to form her own production company. It’s a document of her tenacity and her artistic vision,” Stewart said.
The fragility and rarity of silent movies dovetails with Stewart’s commitment to film preservation. And while she admits to some surprise at the attention paid to her role as TCM’s first African American host, Stewart also says it creates opportunities to widen the audience for classic movies.
“The fact that we’re still talking about black firsts is frustrating. It points to long histories of exclusion. At the same time, though, I feel this is something to celebrate,” Stewart said. “I do feel a real responsibility to recognize that, as I start this role, I represent more than myself. I’ve always been aware of that throughout my career. I take great pride in that. There’s pressure for sure, but it’s a pressure that I accept because I know that especially with a role that is so visible like this, that can be very meaningful for opening the doors and interesting young people, in particular young people of color, to engage in a similar kind of work.”