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
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.
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
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.
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."