University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Stewart has been announced as host of “Silent Sunday Nights,” the 25-year-old Turner Classic Movies (TCM) block that offers iconic movies from the silent era as well as forgotten gems and international classics. Stewart is a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, specializing in the history of African American cinema from the silent era to the present. She is also a three-term appointee to the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB), which advises the Librarian of Congress on policy, and is the Chair of the NFPB Diversity Task Force working to ensure the films chosen for the National Film Registry reflect diversity and inclusion.
For Stewart, hosting TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights” is an opportunity that meshes harmoniously with the kind of work she’s been doing throughout her career.
“It’s an incredible alignment of my expertise as a scholar across my career, which has included trying to reach beyond academia and enter the mainstream,” said Stewart, whose relationship with TCM began three years ago, when she was invited to present films that are featured on a groundbreaking compilation she co-curated, titled “Pioneers of African American Cinema.” It was a monumental collection of historically vital films by the earliest African American filmmakers, digitally mastered in HD using archival elements.
A Chicago native, Stewart curates a local film series called “Cinema 53,” which spotlights women and people of color. She also shepherds the archival South Side Home Movie Project which accumulates, digitizes and screens amateur films shot by people who live in the infamous south side of Chicago.
“I have this incredible life of living where I grew up and teaching at a very prestigious institution, and it’s important to me to bring those intellectual resources and those economic resources that the university has, to people outside of the walls of the campus,” said Stewart. “So this is just like taking that desire and that commitment to a new level. I did not expect to be doing work like this but I think that it’s exactly the right kind of move for me to make.”
That she is an African American woman, and the first black host of a TCM programming staple, is certainly appreciated by Stewart, who fully expects her identity will be of influence on the framing of the franchise going forward.
“I think it’s extremely significant, and I feel honored, while also feeling appropriately pressured,” she said. “I never feel like I walk into any space as just myself. I carry with me specific histories and strengths. And so I think that for so many of us who operate in predominantly white spaces, which is not new to me as an academic, we can choose to accept quite a bit of responsibility for speaking for our people.”
The pressure she speaks of includes channeling the anxieties of the communities she proudly represents, especially during a period of robust conversations around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. And she’s well aware of how ephemeral moments like this can be, which only amplifies the urgency to seize them.
“It is incredibly important to use this platform as effectively as I can while I have it, and so being impactful, using my voice to point out things about these films, and help select films that we show that really teach us something new about the diversity of film history, is definitely something I plan to do, and that TCM has been completely supportive of,” said Stewart who is confident that, under her watch, the full range of cinematic experiences during the silent period will be represented.
And as an archivist, she also plans to introduce conversations around the preservation of these aged films that viewers will find educational. Some of her favorites of the period include Carl Theodore Dryer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which she describes as a extraordinary work of art. “It demonstrates the power of the sheer visual image, and is a film that is always spellbinding to me.”
She’s also a huge fan of Oscar Micheaux, calling the pioneer an “especially singular cinematic voice,” whose work will be included in her programming of “Silent Sunday Nights.” Included will be “The Symbol of the Unconquered” and “Within our Gates,” which were both audacious responses to D. W. Griffith’s incendiary “The Birth of a Nation,” which is also on the docket.
And Stewart will not shy away from the problematic dimensions of these films, with a goal being to critically examine them in their full complexity. “I think this is part of the invitation that TCM has given to me, to come and really talk about the challenging racial and gender questions that come up with some of these early films,” she said. “And even if I’m not talking them, I think my sheer presence as a black woman hosting this series will automatically raise the kind of inquiries that otherwise may not come to the surface.”
“Jacqueline is sharp, lively, and has an illuminating depth of information,” said Pola Changnon, senior vice president of marketing, studio production and talent for TCM. “Her knowledge of the silent era and the way she weaves a beautiful narrative about this genre of film will surely entertain viewers while also allowing them a front seat to their own personal film class with her as their teacher.”
Stewart will begin hosting “Silent Sunday Nights” on September 15, 2019.
Watch a preview below: