TCM Not Silent About Making History

TCM Sept. 9 named film professor Jacqueline Stewart as host of its Silent Sunday Nights franchise, making her the first African-American host in the 25-year history of the network.

Beginning Sept. 15, Stewart, a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, will introduce films as well as provide historical context for the franchise, which celebrates the best of classic movies from the silent era, according to TCM.

“Jacqueline is sharp, lively, and has an illuminating depth of information. We felt we could really elevate Silent Sunday Nights into a larger franchise for TCM – with the right person on board – and she was the perfect fit,” said Pola Changnon, senior vice president of marketing, studio production and talent for TCM, in a statement. “Her knowledge of the silent era and the way she weaves a beautiful narrative about this genre of film will surely entertain viewers while also allowing them a front seat to their own personal film class with her as their teacher.”

I recently spoke to Stewart about her new and historic role at TCM, as well as her thoughts on the current state of diversity in cinema. An edited version of the interview appears below.

You are the first African-American to serve as a regular host on TCM. What's the significance of that fact at this point in time?

I've been reflecting on that a lot, and I know the people at TCM have as well, especially when we look at what has been going on in our media culture over the last few years -- and I'm thinking especially about the ways in which the [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] has opened up in response to the lack of diverse nominees within the acting categories. The Academy's response was to really make a concerted effort to have a more diverse membership and to figure out ways to look beyond the usual suspects to find all of these important, and I think overlooked, groups that have expertise when it comes to our film history and our contemporary world. So I think that coming on board at TCM makes sense in light of what I hope will be an ongoing effort to try to reflect the true diversity of our culture in the ways that we make media and talk about our media landscape.

How important is this opportunity personally to you?

It is like a dream come true. I am a huge fan of TCM and as a scholar we speak to a really specific audience and our scholarly work and my teaching, so this is just an incredible opportunity for me to share my knowledge with a much larger public. TCM is like an archive; I'm a film historian so the range of work that TCM shows is just remarkable and has always been that way. Of course one of the things that has always made TCM stand out is the fact that it shows its [movies] uninterrupted. As somebody who studies film history and film style, to be able to appreciate films in that way on TCM is really beautiful to me. I'm absolutely thrilled.

What’s behind your affinity for silent films?

Silent film has been central in my research. My first book is called Migrating to the Movies, and it looks at the earliest days of African-American filmmaking. I looked at how going to the movies was such an important part of the lives of African-American people, especially as they were moving from the South to the North during the great migration in the [1910s] and 1920s. It's an era of filmmaking that's always been really important in my scholarship, and I've been intrigued to learn more about silent films especially because they have so many of the ingredients that become so important in the classic films that are made in later years.

Given what you have seen in recent years, are you confident that the movie industry is on the right track in terms of recognizing and honoring diverse content?

I think they are on the right track. I mean you could see that in the last run of [Academy Awards] Best Picture nominees. It was just astounding to see the recognition of so many, very impressive and talented people of color who have been working in the industry and are making contributions that might not have caught the eye of conventional voters for Oscars. What's also so important is that the Oscars represent a really important, visible platform that so many other people see and think about that it activates change on multiple fights. So hopefully it's not just about getting more people of color to win Academy Awards and to be nominated, but ultimately it will have a ripple effect across the industry and among audiences across the country and around the world.

What else are you watching other than silent movies?

Oh wow. I love the stuff that [producer/director] Ava DuVernay is doing, whether it's her [Netflix] film about the Central Park Five or OWN’s Queen Sugar. I've been following her career carefully because of the way that she crosses media platforms to open up spaces for more women and people of color in this industry. She's someone that I follow a lot.

If you could create and host a TCM segment or special outside of Silent Sunday Nights, what would it be?

I'm always looking for places to highlight the contributions of women and people of color to film history. I've been very fortunate to be invited to the last two classic TCM Film Festivals in L.A. where I was part of a panel discussion about African-American images. I was also on a panel last year that looked at the complicated legacy of Gone With The Wind, which was screened at the festival. It was the very first film shown on TCM, so that's another area that I would love to talk about. Here we have some of our classic films that contain elements that are really difficult to talk about. We're not always proud of the politics of these films because they reflect what was going on during the era in which they were made. That could be another really interesting thing to discuss. It sort of sparks deeper conversation about the cultural politics of a classic film. 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.