The MacArthur Foundation, the private foundation based in Chicago, is helping to shine a light on communities of color who have been sidelined and stereotyped in Hollywood.
As part of the 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, which gives grants to individuals to inspire change in their communities and around the world, 25 forward thinkers have been chosen from various science and creative backgrounds.
One of those minds is Jacqueline Stewart who is a film scholar, archivist, and curator.
Stewart is a University of Chicago professor of cinema studies and director of the nonprofit arts organization, Black Cinema House. In 2020, she became chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the largest U.S. institution devoted to the arts, sciences, and artists of moviemaking, according to MacArthur.
Through her work at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Stewart is identifying overlooked Black filmmakers who were instrumental in the industry. She also launched the South Side Home Movie Project, working to collect, preserve and screen amateur films by residents of South Side Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Stewart spoke to Changing America about her work, the history of Black filmmakers, and the future of the industry.
[In your work] you wanted to revisit and review older Black filmmakers who paved the way for the film industry to be considered as art. Who exactly did you have in mind? How were they overlooked as Black filmmakers? What type of representation do your Black filmmakers display in the industry?
Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African American writer/director/producer, made more than 40 films between 1918 and 1948. He worked entirely independently from the mainstream film industry, and yet had a huge and passionate following among segregated African American audiences. I’ve done a lot of research on Micheaux, and I was thrilled to learn that the Academy Museum was featuring him in the core exhibition Stories of Cinema, alongside Citizen Kane, and just before visitors enter a gallery of Academy Awards statuettes. Micheaux never got this kind of recognition beyond the Black community. But his films are models of using cinema to address racial injustice and creating the distribution and marketing strategies that later Black filmmakers have expanded upon, from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry to Ava DuVernay.
You launched a South Side Home Movie Project in Chicago. Can you explain what inspired you to create this project, specifically in Chicago? What is the process of finding talent for your film project? Why collect amateur filmmakers’ work in the digital age?
I started the South Side Home Movie Project to honor the ways that everyday people have used cameras to document their own lives. We put out a call to the community, and I’m so grateful that families have trusted us to digitize their films and have participated in our screenings where they narrate the footage. Chicago’s South Side has suffered from unrelentingly negative media portrayals. This project shows community life, celebrations, loving family interactions that counteract mainstream media coverage. And these films show us that film history includes material far beyond Hollywood, narrative, theatrical filmmaking.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Emmys and #EmmysSoWhite? Which artists or what properties deserved what award(s) or recognition and why?
I think the Emmy’s displayed the same blindspots that the #OscarsSoWhite movement pointed to. I hope that the attention drawn to the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees and winners will generate the kind of reflection that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been engaged in, as demonstrated by our very active discussion of inclusion at the Academy Museum.
Do you have a story or comment on the late Melvin Van Peebles?
I met Melvin van Peebles several years ago in Chicago. I’ve studied his life and work a lot, and I asked him if he really had a tattoo of a dotted line around his neck with the instruction: “Coupe Ici” [“Cut Here” in French]. He coolly pulled down his collar to show it was indeed there and said: “Don’t believe everything you read.” He was a uniquely brilliant storyteller, wickedly funny and totally radical in his art and life. His tenacity and audaciousness and sacrifices opened up doors for every Black film artist who has followed.
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