[J]ust like the various regions of America are what make it whole, the many cities that contributed to the growth of the U.S. film industry make it what it is today. Chicago—and Black Chicago—was prolific in film production before Hollywood became the hub of the industry, and it was a center of film innovation in the early 1900s.
Black contributions to the nascent days of film are often overlooked, but thankfully current-day torchbearers are working to preserve and disseminate little-known facts about Black film and filmmakers. University of Chicago film studies scholar Jacqueline Stewart is one such leader—a griot by nature but an inquisitive film analyst and archivist by trade. On the U. of C. faculty since 2013, she was until earlier this year the director of the university’s Arts + Public Life program; she’s also the founder of the South Side Home Movie Project, and the host of the Turner Classic Movies’ weekly programming series “Silent Sunday Nights.” Very few of us are lucky enough to take “home” with us wherever we go, but Stewart, a Chicago native, is this year able to represent her community even while distanced from it.
On leave from her position at the university, she’s the newly appointed chief artistic and programming officer for Los Angeles’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opens its doors September 30, 2021. The Weekly spoke with Stewart about her work, past and future. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
When did you first develop an interest in film?
I watched a lot of old movies with my aunt late at night. I had never realized before that there were so many stories inside of movies. My aunt would tell me, “These two stars had an affair,” or a certain star was at a certain studio. I realized movies are connected to each other. You could follow what was going on with a star or a director. That was fascinating to me and really stuck with me.
When did you first start exploring your love for film?
When I went to college. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago; I went to Kenwood Academy. I got into Stanford University—amazing. I wanted to be a journalist; I started taking some classes in literature. It was around the time that Spike Lee was coming on the scene. I saw She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and I was so deeply conflicted. I’d never seen a Black film like that before by a Black director. We were all rallying to support this young original voice. There’s a rape scene in that movie. It seemed like it was a movie about a woman, but seen through the perspective of a man. I was grappling with it—how could I love it but have these kinds of questions about it at the same time? That’s when I discovered that people study film, and they pursue questions like that. I was reading stuff that bell hooks wrote about Spike Lee’s career. I started learning about feminist film theory. I was applying it to this immediate question I had in my mind about how to think about Spike Lee’s films, and that’s what I ended up writing my B.A. thesis about.
What is your exact title now, and what does it entail?
I’m the chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. In that role, I oversee four areas: curatorial, so all of our exhibitions and our collecting strategies. Publications, because we’re doing books and catalogues related to many of our exhibitions, including an opening exhibition on Hayao Miyazaki, the animator. We’ve created this gorgeous catalog for that one-of-a-kind exhibition. There are a lot of education programs, which means we will be doing a lot of work with youth. There’s a Shirley Temple Education Studio with classes in filmmaking, which will focus on the arts and sciences of film. And then film programs, which is thrilling to me, because showing films has always been an important part of my own practice. At the Academy Museum, we’ll be showing films seven days a week, 365 days a year in two theaters. People will be able to go through the galleries and learn about the different components of filmmaking, and then we’ll show people what the finished product is.
What were the programs online in April?
In April we kicked off some virtual programs. We wanted to start getting the public aware of the museum and the kinds of exhibitions we’ll have and the types of programs we’ll have in person. We thought the Oscars weekend would be a really great time to introduce some of the museum’s programming. So, that’s what we started in April, which people can now check out on YouTube. It’s called “Breaking the Oscars Ceiling.” It’s about four women who had historic Oscars wins. And we’re going to do other programs, all of them drawing on what’s happening in the galleries, especially our core exhibition, which is called “Stories of Cinema.” For example, Spike Lee is collaborating with the museum on a gallery space that really showcases his amazing collection of film posters and other items that relate to his influences. We’re going to do a conversation with Spike on September 7 about his gallery.
How do you feel your Chicago roots prepared you for taking this position?
Thank you for asking that question! I don’t really get to talk that much about my Chicago roots and their relationship to this. After going to Stanford, I went to the University of Chicago to get my PhD and did most of my dissertation research in Chicago. I wanted to trace the earliest history of African-American filmmaking, so I spent a lot of time trying to trace the filmmakers and film culture of Chicago, particularly the “Black belt” in Chicago, during the nineteen-teens. The stretch of State Street where IIT is at now was the mecca for Black Chicago. Before the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago was the urban destination for so many migrants coming up from the South. The Chicago Defender newspaper was the paper that Black people all over the country were reading. The Pullman porters were taking them all over on their runs.
Chicago is so important in film history in general. Essanay Studios were in Chicago. Charlie Chaplin got his start in Chicago. Chicago was the center of film distribution. Projectors were made in Chicago. As an industrial center, in the early days, Chicago is key to the story of American filmmaking, and it’s key in Black filmmaking. Thinking and learning about Oscar Micheaux, the pioneer early Black filmmaker who lived in Chicago, founded his company here, and shot some of his early films here, I really carried that with me in the ways that I have understood Black history. Of course, there were people making films in lots of places, it was just on a smaller scale. Because of my interest in silent film and my interest in regional film histories, I always want to keep Chicago on the map. It’s not just a story about Hollywood, it’s what happened before Hollywood and during Hollywood. Filmmaking in Chicago has been growing and growing and growing, and that’s really worth paying attention to.
That’s a nice segue to my next question! What’s the relationship now between filming and underserved communities in Chicago?
I think there’s a really important balance to strike. Bringing a production to a community can leave something good or it can be totally just on the surface. I am fortunate to have spent a great amount of time with Cauleen Smith, an incredible artist and filmmaker. I’ve heard her talk about how when you’re making a film, it’s like you colonize the space. I think it makes a difference when you have to do that, that you inform people of what you’re doing, maybe you engage some of the local businesses to provide catering or extras….Use it as an opportunity to teach people what you’re doing. There’s a difference when you do something like that, leave a positive mark or give a contribution back to the people that facilitated your production, versus swooping in and leaving. [Ed. note: As this story was going to press, the producer of The Chi announced plans to build a film studio campus in South Shore.]
If I can bring Spike back into the conversation, when Spike did Do the Right Thing, he was really mindful that filming would have an impact on the community. From what he said, the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam security, actually cleaned up some crack houses in that area of Brooklyn. That was something that was necessary for the shoot, but it also benefited the community. So that’s the kind of model that I think is really important for anything [on the] South Side of Chicago.
What kind of effect do you think your current position will have on the archival community of Chicago?
Well, I hope it’s a positive effect. In the conversations I’m having with my colleagues at the museum about future exhibitions or about the ways our education programming should benefit people on site but also people more broadly, I’m always thinking about models, partners, and dear friends in Chicago. I served on the board of Chicago Film Archives for quite a while. I admire Nancy Watrous and that project so much. It’s important that the Academy Museum be the kind of venue where local archives will be partners in terms of showing things that are in their collections and to shine a light on some of their work. I’m thinking about another organization I’ve worked with in its creation, Sisters in Cinema. Are you familiar with Yvonne Welbon’s project?
Oh, yes. I am!
I’m on her board now. This is the kind of project that I can easily see connected to the Academy Museum because as she is creating these opportunities for Black women and girls to tell their stories, to learn the craft of writing and filmmaking, that also involves knowing film history. To whatever degree it would be helpful for those students to get access… I’m excited to provide access to the museum and its resources in order to do what is part of the museum’s mission, which is to really provide more access to broader groups of people. To make it seem possible that they can tell their own stories in this medium.
What’s up with the South Side Home Movie Project?
Still going strong! Thank you for asking about it. I founded it in 2005. It’s a project to collect amateur films shot by South Side residents. 16mm sometimes but mostly 8mm, super 8mm small gauge films. There’s so much of this material out there, but it’s all in private hands. People usually come across it when someone has passed away and they’re cleaning their house. They come across these Kodak boxes. They often don’t know what to do with them because people don’t have projectors anymore. No one really knows how to run one anymore, which is a shame because there’s something charming about the sound of the projector.
It has the same effect as a vinyl record.
Totally. Many of the movies are home movies that show Black middle-class life, which is almost invisible when we look at commercial film history.
Are you done teaching in Chicago?
I’m on leave. I hope I’m never done teaching in Chicago! I hope someone will invite me to come talk to students (laughs). I continue to work with my graduate students. I’m a child of South Siders. It’s important for me to take whatever knowledge and resources I have to lift up my community, even if my work takes me elsewhere.
Sonya Alexander spent her early career training to be a talent agent. She eventually realized she was meant to be on the creative end of the spectrum and has been writing ever since. She does entertainment journalism as well as academic writing. She has a love for wildlife conservation and is currently working on a book about lions and is working on a historical fiction book about Louisiana creole culture. A Chicago native who currently resides in New Orleans, she last wrote for the Weekly about the closure of St. Columbanus School.