The following was published in the New York Times on September 9, 2019.
by Aisha Harris
This year, the cable channel Turner Classic Movies celebrated its 25th anniversary as the home where movie lovers can indulge in cinematic nostalgia. In some ways the network has kept many facets the same — all movie presentations remain commercial-free, for one, and fans continue to look forward to programming staples such as Summer Under the Stars (daylong marathons spotlighting movie stars) and “TCM Remembers” (an end-of-year in memoriam montage).
But TCM has not been resistant to change over the years, and on Monday, it announced a historic one: Beginning Sunday, the film historian and preservationist Jacqueline Stewart will step in to introduce the long-running weekly programming series Silent Sunday Nights. While in the past prominent figures such as Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee have served as guest programmers, Stewart will be the network’s first black host. (From 2016 to 2018, Tiffany Vazquez appeared on TCM as the channel’s first woman and person of color to host.)
Stewart, a professor at the University of Chicago specializing in black cinema and silent film history, might already be a familiar name (and face) to some hard-core TCM enthusiasts: In 2016 she appeared alongside the longtime host Ben Mankiewicz to introduce the companion series to “Pioneers of African-American Cinema,” a box set of short and feature films from the early 20th century that she helped curate. She was also a panelist at the TCM Film Festival in 2018 and 2019.
During a recent phone conversation, Stewart discussed film preservation in the age of streaming and how she plans to bring her expertise to her new role. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
So much is happening in terms of film distribution and streaming services — Filmstruck was short-lived, and films can seemingly disappear from any platform at any time. In what ways do you see your own work in film research and preservation playing into your job as a host on TCM?
A huge percentage of silent films and classic Hollywood films, the nitrate film stock is so unstable. It is incredibly important to show its worth. What we have has to be kept in the best physical condition, no question. But we also have to do work to preserve these films in our consciousness, and that happens through screening and presenting them. So for the last few years, I’ve been very fortunate to have spaces across the South Side of Chicago where I have done film screenings.
I have a series now where we showcase films that are by and about women and people of color. And the presentation of film, the giving people a space — not just to watch them, but then to have a dialogue about them afterward — is incredibly important to me. And I see that as a real connector between the scholarship that I do.
I did a course a couple of years ago, a seminar. I taught it with Miriam Petty, who is [a professor] at Northwestern University now, about “Birth of a Nation,” to mark the 100th anniversary of that important and problematic film. And we made a number of the screenings public — we realized, people really need a space to talk about some of these films that are difficult to talk about. They need a space to talk about “Gone With the Wind” or some of the Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson films. Having the opportunity to present films on TCM, for me, is just this really powerful extension of that work — creating platforms for people to watch films and to have dialogue about them.
What exactly goes into your job as host of Silent Sunday Nights, and how do you decide which films you will present?
I’ve been talking with the TCM team a lot about using this as a space to really show the diversity of filmmaking during the silent period. This is a period when a huge percentage of the filmmakers were women, and yet this is a history that I think viewers may not be aware of. There were women directors and writers in huge numbers who were contributing to the development of the medium.
And many of the women who appear onscreen, some of the actors, were not just taking instruction from male filmmakers; they were co-creators of their stories and their images. For example, one of the first things that I’m going to be presenting is the film “Cleopatra” from 1912: It’s one of the very first feature-length films made in the United States, just three years before “The Birth of a Nation.” And it was made by Helen Gardner Picture Players; Helen Gardner was an actress and she’s the first actor, male or female, to create her own production company.
She was really committed to elevating film to the level of a high art during a period when people still felt that film was just a low-class business, not an art form. She wanted to bring stories and bring production values that would get people to recognize that there was real beauty and dynamism in filmmaking. Moving forward, we’ll feature films by women, some pioneers like Lois Weber or Alice Guy-Blaché.
Based on your previous collaborations with TCM, what is your impression of the network’s audience in general, and how is that informing how you will discuss these films?
This is a knowledgeable audience. Having the opportunity to interact with TCM viewers at the festivals, they’re a really passionate group of viewers, no question. But they are also viewers who are really interested in learning more about the films that they care about.
I was part of a panel at this year’s festival that was on the complicated legacy of “Gone With the Wind.” And I guess I thought we might have to be a little bit mindful of the fact that people love this film, and may not want to hear a lot of criticism of the film, even though it should be obvious to everyone now that the film presents a romantic vision of slavery, which was very popular at the time.
But when we were doing the panel, what I saw was that the TCM viewers there really wanted to delve into these issues, and they wanted to understand what Hattie McDaniel’s experience was like making this film. And they were very interested to know more about how African-American audiences and critics responded to the films, and what the film meant for the future possibilities for black talent in Hollywood.
I think the audience is really familiar with this history and looking to complicate it and to learn more. What I say to my students all the time is that it’s not a matter of rejecting these films or you know, refusing to engage with films that have content that we find to be problematic. We can’t do that. In fact, the responsible thing to do — and I think the rewarding thing to do — is to really delve into their complexities and to look at them as mirrors of their time, but also as mirrors to us today.