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Scholar Jacqueline Stewart makes history as TCM’s first African American host

Jacqueline Stewart TCM
Newly announced TCM host Jacqueline Stewart photographed in Atlanta last month on the TCM set.
(John Nowak / TCM)

TCM’s Jacqueline Stewart will host “Silent Sunday Nights,” becoming the network’s first African American host.

Author, film professor and archivist Jacqueline Stewart first fell in love with classic cinema as a kid staying up past bedtime to watch old movies with her aunt on television.

“As a film scholar, sometimes we don’t really appreciate the history of showing films on TV, but that’s the way that film was introduced to [many of] us,” said Stewart by phone from Atlanta. “Just the fact that it was a family experience, that kind of communal experience of watching it together in the comfort of home, it felt special.”

The cinephile, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago as well as the institution’s director of arts and public life, plus a three-time appointee to the National Film Preservation Board (which advises the Library of Congress) and chair of its diversity task force, can add TV personality to her credits as she makes history this month in becoming Turner Classic Movies’ first African American host.

Stewart will host the network’s “Silent Sunday Nights” programming beginning Sept. 15, introducing curated films and providing historical context. September’s crop of films include Lewis Milestone’s “Two Arabian Nights” (1927) and “The Racket” (1928) as well as 1912’s “Cleopatra” starring Helen Gardner, the first actress to establish her own production company.

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“I think that the ‘Silent Sunday Nights’ are a really perfect space for me,” said Stewart. “I can get into more detail about a period of film history that might be more obscure to some viewers, about some of the aspects of the production and some of the talent involved, where they came from and how they got started in film, which was still a new medium at the time.

“I hope that because I’m a teacher I’m able to interest people in these films,” she added. “I really do think that once you give them a chance, no matter how old they are, you can really come to appreciate the uniqueness of this work and how rewarding it is to get to know silent film when we try to understand what happens later on in film history.”

The Times caught up with Stewart in advance of her new gig to discuss the appeal of silent movies, joining TCM and enticing younger viewers to appreciate the silent era.

How does it feel to be TCM’s first African American host?

Oh, it feels great. It feels really exciting. I can say that right from the start I’ve been able to talk to the TCM team about showing work that really showcases the diversity of the silent period. And it has just been really gratifying to see that this will be a space where I can do that, so I’m thrilled.

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Are you nervous?

Kind of. You know what I’m most nervous about? Seeing myself on television [laughs]. I think I will be very nervous right before it comes on. But I have to say I’ve been able to present a couple of times at the last two TCM Classic Film Festivals and the audience is just really positive and engaged. I don’t feel that I’m coming into a situation where people are ready to judge me in some harsh way. And I really get the sense that people are ready for this and also really ready to open up to new questions and new thoughts about silent films, a period of film history that many people think they know already.

Do you think younger generations have as much of an affinity for classic films?

Yes. Well, I certainly hope so. I will definitely be talking with my graduate students about doing this and hope that they will tune in. One of the things that has been most striking to me recently is watching young people become interested in pre-digital media. My daughter is 16 and she asked for a record player for her last birthday. And from what I understand from my colleagues who teach film production, students are very interested in shooting on film [rather than digital] because of the qualities that film can bring like warmth and the variation of getting back to photo-chemical filmmaking.

So yes, I do think that because there’s so much information that we can get now through the Internet and social media, there is a kind of curiosity that young people have to delve more deeply into some of these things and to experience them in more unique ways.

Jacqueline Stewart
Host Jacqueline Stewart on the TCM set last month in Atlanta.
(John Nowak / TCM)

Have you reached out to the other hosts for tips or advice?

Yeah, I have. [Prime-time host] Ben [Mankiewicz] has been great. He’s been on for so long. The first time that I was on TCM was two summers ago for a couple of nights presenting race movies in dialogue with him. He’s been incredibly encouraging and has said to me many times that you settle more into your own voice as you go along with this, so that was, I think, a very generous and helpful thing to say.

How much impact overall will you have on programming?

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A lot. I was invited right out the gate to talk about what films we would want to show. I’m very excited that we’re going to show one of the earliest films by Oscar Micheaux, his 1920 film “The Symbol of the Unconquered.” There was a new score commissioned for the film by the legendary jazz musician Max Roach, who [was] a drummer, so the score that he wrote and performed was just drums. It gets us out of the sense that silent films are accompanied with this kind of corny, tinny piano that doesn’t really match the story. That film gives us an incredible insight into how silent films can motivate contemporary artists to give them new meaning and to collaborate with them.

I think the earliest film I’m showing in the first group is called “The Haunted Hotel” and it’s made by a filmmaker named J. Stuart Blackton. It’s from 1907. This traveler ends up in a hotel and the objects start magically moving around. It’s really a showcase of stop-motion animation, and to be able to present something that old on TCM, I hope that people can really get interested and excited to look at these very early days of film history. This is a period that really lays the blueprint for the classic films that TCM is best known for. I [also] pitched Josephine Baker in “The Siren of the Tropics.” She made several silent films in France and that’s her first feature film, it’s absolutely stunning.

What other kinds of things will you be curating?

I’ve been talking with TCM a lot about including films that were made by women filmmakers. People don’t know that the silent era is characterized by a huge percentage of women directors, producers and even the actors in the films [were] very active in creating their own personas, not just doing what the male director was telling them to do. They were founding production companies. We’re going to be showing early on a film by Helen Gardner, the first feature-length version of “Cleopatra” from 1912, which is incredibly early. It’s one of the first feature-length films ever made in the U.S. and it was made by a woman’s production company. Things that are made by women are going to be featured very heavily in the work that I do.

Jacqueline Stewart
TCM host Jacqueline Stewart.
(John Nowak/TCM)

How does it feel to be able to add TV personality to your long career in academia?

Oh wow. TV personality? [laughs] For me, it’s not just about me. Like, yeah, it’s definitely something that I’m adding to my résumé. But I think more importantly for me it’s about having a space where I can bring some of perspective and expertise that I have that grows out of being a scholar. But also being able to talk about these films in a way that I know people in my family talk about them.

I grew up in a household where we would watch old movies on TV. [My aunt would] comment on the stars and we’d think a lot about how we can love the film but also have some points of tension with these films. Classic films very frequently will have maids and servants in them who are not always presented in the most positive light. And we would talk about that as a family, just how challenging and important actors like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers were. And how frustrating it is that they didn’t get to do more during their careers. Being a scholar means that I appreciate the importance of looking at these complex histories in American filmmaking and really delving more deeply into what makes them pleasurable and what we can learn from them including biases and stereotypes that they routinely featured. What did they teach us about where we were as a culture? What did they teach us about where we are now?

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What do you love most about classic film?

I love the acting. The range of acting styles that you see, especially in the silent period, I really appreciate that. And there’s something about their popularity that’s just absolutely fascinating to me. This is a period where people are going to the movies once a week or multiple times per week. It’s a part of people’s everyday lives that it isn’t necessarily anymore. It’s too expensive now for many people to go to the movies more than once a week. And so the kinds of fan cultures that were being created during this time and the attachment that people had to particular stars, I guess that’s one of the things that’s really meaningful to me.

What else influenced your interest in film?

I was in college in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s when Spike Lee was coming onto the scene and he was [part of] the beginning of this new wave of independent black filmmaking. So I was really interested to study that. And he was … is always such an outspoken artist and would talk about wanting to make films that were a departure from this stuff in the past. He really delved into the history of negative representation of black people in mainstream film. And that motivated me to look at what was happening in the past. And I think what I saw was not exactly what he was describing. What I also see in that period is black genius and virtuosity and resilience.


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