The following was published in UChicago News on September 28, 2021.
By Max Witynski
Prof. Jacqueline Stewart, a leading film scholar known for her work on silent films and African American cinema, has been awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship.
Given each year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the prestigious grants recognize individuals from across disciplines who “show exceptional creativity in their work.” As a MacArthur Fellow, Stewart will receive a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 over five years to support creative pursuits.
“I’m thrilled—I’m really surprised,” said Stewart, who is appointed in UChicago’s Department of Cinema and Media Studies. “I did not realize that I was under consideration for this, so it’s amazing. ... It’s just an incredible validation of my work.”
Stewart’s scholarship has focused on films produced by and for African Americans, including what are called “orphan films,” which exist outside of commercial filmmaking.
Since 2019, Stewart has been host of “Silent Sunday Nights” on Turner Classic Movies, which showcases films from the silent era. She is currently on leave in Los Angeles, where she is serving as the inaugural chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opens on September 30.
In its announcement of the 2021 class of fellows, the MacArthur Foundation cited Stewart for her work “illuminating the contributions that overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have made to cinema’s development as an art form.”
“By bridging academic and public realms,” the announcement read, “Stewart is spotlighting the community dynamics that make cinema meaningful and ensuring that visual histories that might otherwise have remained in the shadows have a place in the public imagination.”
Stewart said she has sought to bridge the gap between African American studies and film studies, in part through “moments of exchange” with community members on Chicago’s South Side, where Stewart herself grew up.
“I’ve always wanted to figure out how to bring the study of cinema and the study of race into productive and innovative dialogue,” Stewart said. “I wanted to think about how the experiences of people of color as spectators and filmmakers are relevant to the way that cinema developed as a medium and as a cultural institution.”
One example of Stewart’s success in this area is the South Side Home Movie Project, which collects and preserves works by residents of Chicago’s South Side from the 1920s to the 1980s. Through collaborations with families that donate their films, the project helps contextualize them historically, and offers screenings that invite the public to engage with the films.
In 2019, Stewart was appointed director of the Arts + Public Life initiative at UChicago. With Stewart on leave, Assoc. Prof. Adrienne Brown in the English Language and Literature Department is currently serving as interim director. Stewart also previously directed the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.
Her scholarship has been shaped in key ways by her experiences at UChicago—not only as a faculty member, but as a graduate student.
“After I graduated from college—I had been at Stanford—I really wanted to come back to Chicago,” said Stewart, AM’93, PhD’99. “It seemed to me that the University of Chicago was a place where I could really deepen my studies of both African American literature and film history,” and find a challenging environment that was “uniquely rigorous and thoughtful.”
At UChicago, Stewart studied with a number of renowned scholars, including the late Miriam Hansen, who founded what is now the Department of Cinema and Media Studies; Tom Gunning, the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Professor Emeritus; Kenneth Warren, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English; and former faculty member Elizabeth Alexander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who is now the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Stewart’s doctoral dissertation eventually turned into her first book, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Published in 2005, the book examines cinema culture in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods at the time of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. She later co-edited two books that highlight significant but understudied Black film artists: L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), and William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission (2021).
Her MacArthur Fellowship, Stewart said, also reflects the support that she has received from colleagues and the enriching interactions she has had with students and staff.
“I never feel that I achieve things on my own,” Stewart said. “I am indebted to the generosity and camaraderie of so many people. I wouldn’t be a recipient of this fellowship were it not for the incredible people I have been privileged to work alongside at the University of Chicago since I was a graduate student.”
While she does not yet have firm plans for her grant, she is excited for the new paths that the MacArthur Fellowship will open: “This is just a remarkable opportunity to think in broader ways about what’s possible in my work than I ever have before. So I am challenging myself to take my time to figure out what I want to do.”