MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jacqueline Stewart on why racist films should be watched and not censored

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

“I came to the [Academy] museum because it has a mission that aligns with the goals that I had as a film scholar, which is to make film history as inclusive as possible,” says Jacqueline Stewart. Photo by MacArthur Foundation (CC BY 4.0).

Recent LA transplant Jacqueline Stewart has won a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Recognized for her work uncovering and preserving the lost contributions of Black filmmakers and making history more inclusive, Stewart is on leave from the University of Chicago, joining the brand new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures as its chief artistic and programming officer. Fans of Turner Classic Movies might also know her as the host of “Silent Sunday Nights,” a weekly show that showcases silent films from all around the world. 

Although she’s currently 100% focused on museum work, Stewart says she’s mulling over how she’ll use the $625,000 she receives through the grant. 

“Opening up the gallery, starting our programming, doing a civic dedication last week and really formally opening our doors — and then this extraordinary, just totally touching honor of being named a MacArthur Fellow, it's still sinking in,” she tells KCRW.  

In her new role at the museum, she oversees daily film screenings, plus teams that create content and focus on public and educational programming.

“I came to the museum because it has a mission that aligns with the goals that I had as a film scholar, which is to make film history as inclusive as possible. We know for too long — the stories about how filmmaking developed have been not paying careful attention to the contributions of women, to the activities of people of color,” she explains. 

The LA Rebellion and Melvin Van Peebles

One of Stewart’s noted projects is centered around a group of Black students at UCLA during the 1960s who made films that were celebrated abroad, especially in Europe. 

Alongside two other UCLA researchers, Stewart recovered the history of the group known as the LA Rebellion: Charles Burnett, ​​Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Ben Caldwell, and Larry Clark. That included working with the filmmakers themselves to recover negatives and prints of their films. 

Although she had known of the LA Rebellion’s work as far back as graduate school, Stewart says it wasn’t possible to access much of the footage because it seemed lost to time. 

“It was the most rewarding scholarly experience I ever had. Working with living filmmakers, talking with them about their legacy, and hopefully creating the kinds of archival and theatrical collaborations that introduce audiences to new work and work that was old, and yet new to them,” she says. “It was a way of infusing some energy into and attention to the importance of film preservation, especially for filmmakers who come from marginalized groups.” 

Today, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is also celebrating Haile Germina — by hosting a retrospective of his work and giving him the first annual Vantage Award.  

Last month, Melvin Van Peebles, a Black filmmaker often credited with starting the wave of “blaxploitation” films, died at age 81. Stewart says he, alongside his film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” helped demonstrate the existence of a Black audience that is hungry for empowered Black films. 

“He didn't want audiences to be passive, but really active and to be motivated and supported culturally [and] politically through filmmaking. So in that way, I think the spirit of Melvin Van Peebles will certainly live on because he left a real blueprint,” she points out. “When he made ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,’ he created a kind of crew environment full of people of color. He crafted something that was like a workshop because he recognized that there were so few people of color who were able to enter the unions and filmmaking guilds.” 

Why it’s problematic to censor racist films 

Stewart argues that films like “Gone With The Wind” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” should be available because they’re undeniable evidence of the oppressive and stereotypical treatment of people of color in film. She also recalls the racist treatment of Hattie McDaniel (the first Black person to win an Oscar for her role in “Gone with the Wind”) at the 1940 Academy Awards. After receiving her award, she was escorted to a back table due to the venue’s segregationist policies. 

“If we suppress them because they're painful or problematic, then we also can't call Hollywood to task for these histories. … I think that it's really important to have the evidence of Hollywood's mistreatment of Black people both on screen and off screen, and to try to understand what [McDaniel’s] experience was like, and to look at the work that she did in the context of these really humiliating dehumanizing conditions.”

She adds, “I completely respect anyone's decision not to watch these films. But at the same time, I think that it would be more problematic if we tried to hide them away, or if we didn't try to develop the critical tools to understand how they worked, and how they continue to work in our society.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Jacqueline Stewart - film scholar, archivist, curator, 2021 MacArthur Foundation Grant recipient