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African-American cinema verité

>> Discussions about blacks in silent films have languished for too long on negative stereotypes, says Jacqueline Stewart, who studies the Great Migration for the deeper story.

PHOTO:  Discussions about blacks in silent films have languished for too long on negative stereotypes, says Jacqueline Stewart, who studies the Great Migration for the deeper story.Wednesdays! Come and see the race's daredevil movie star," reads an advertisement for the Owl Theater in the January 19, 1918, Chicago Defender. "Noble M. Johnson supported by Eddie Polo in 'The Bull's Eye.' Most sensational serial ever filmed! 18 episodes." At 47th and State Streets in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, the Owl was one in a stretch of theaters along the "Stroll," a lively business district catering to the South Side's black residents during the early 20th century.

Although those theaters closed shop long ago, their advertisements in newspapers read by the city's black residents still grab the attention of Hyde Park native Jacqueline N. Stewart, AM'93, PhD'99.

"That turn-of-the-century period fascinates me," says Stewart, assistant professor in English language and literature and in the Committee on Cinema & Media Studies, during a conversation in her Gates-Blake office. "It was a devastating time in terms of racial politics. Lynch law ruled in the South. You had W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington trying to lay out a program for the race. It was a life-and-death situation for blacks in America."

Between 1890 and 1930, more than 1 million African Americans moved from the South to cities in the North. The Great Migration of 1916-19 infused Chicago's black population with a large number of working-class African Americans who came north in search of work. They were also drawn by the vibrant social life hinted at by ads like the Owl's, which they read in tattered copies of the Defender left by black Pullman porters working the trains south from Chicago.

What was it like, Stewart has asked, for newly migrated working-class African Americans to go to the movies? After all, the waves of northern migration took place just as American popular culture was being transformed by a revolutionary form of entertainment: the cinema. Meanwhile, the "life-and-death situation" that Stewart describes created an imperative for African Americans-be they country bumpkins just off the train or middle-class second- and third-generation urbanites-to transform themselves into modern "New Negroes" and to lay a collective claim on their place in society.

Stewart believes that these two transformations must have been intertwined, influencing and being influenced by each other as part of the very complicated web of experience that made up American social life in the early 1900s.

Reconstructing the relationship between the emerging cinema and newly urbanized working-class African Americans is not easy. Very few migrants documented their experiences-or at least very few documents of their experiences survive-so Stewart says she must "read between the lines" of documents that do remain.

"The Defender would run lists of rules on how to live in the city. Things like, Don't go outside wearing an apron," says Stewart, or warnings against "hilarity" (including loud laughter and raucous behavior) in public places-nearly anything that would cause the new migrants to stick out. "I look for the voices of the people I want to hear in the cracks of these things. I discover them in the anxieties of the people who were already living here."

Going to the movies, Stewart says, was just a small part of the migrants' lives. But she believes that the local movie houses were important because they offered migrants a relatively safe environment to explore their place in society. Many of the theaters on the Stroll were operated by African Americans, and the silent films they featured were often accompanied by black jazz pianists or were directed by and starred African Americans. Movies such as the silent feature-length film Within Our Gates (1919), directed by African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, depicted the complexities of early 20th-century urban black life. Black audiences, Stewart says, learned from these films while, at the same time, their daily experiences informed the films' plot lines.

Within Our Gates, for example, is the melodramatic story of Sylvia Landry, an educated black woman whose family is lynched during a grim flashback sequence in the film. A teacher at a school facing bankruptcy in a poor, black Alabama community, Landry travels north on a fund-raising mission. She encounters white people who either abhor or sympathize with her cause. After several plot twists, she saves the school (and even falls in love).

Within Our Gates, says Stewart, is hardly the type of racist, "nigger in the woodpile" film that one would expect from this period. Indeed, Stewart may be the first scholar to break away from the discussion of early film as a medium that reinforced negative, racist stereotypes.

Stewart does not deny that those images exist. "They are unavoidable. They are so pernicious, so consistent. It's hard to watch and see anything but insult," says Stewart. "But it seems you can also read behind the images, try to construct 'Blackness'" in light of what was being shown on the movie screen. Much of her research examines racist images-including the use of black face-but through the lens of the African Americans who certainly must have seen these films at the movie house.

The granddaughter of migrants who moved to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama, Stewart grew up hearing the stories of "learning how to live in Chicago," and her family traveled south every few years for reunions. Her lifelong fascination with movies was inspired during sleepovers at an aunt's. "It wasn't just the films themselves that captivated me, but the way she would talk me through them, layering her own narrative into the one playing out on the screen," she says. "She introduced me to the processes of creation and interpretation on the part of black spectators, even in relation to 'white' films." Gazing out from posters on Stewart's office wall are Pam Grier as the buxom Coffy, the long-lashed Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and RuPaul, "Supermodel of the World."

As Stewart prepares to publish her research in a first book, she considers the work that lies ahead. "It gets down to the question, What is 'Black'? I think there is a much more interesting story to be told." - S.A.S.


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