Editor's note: This story is part of Meet a UChicagoan, a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
Justin D. Williams sees home movies as gateways into memories. Christmas mornings in wood-paneled family rooms. Playing cards in chartreuse-colored kitchens and Bronzeville clubs filled with people in tailored suits.
As lead archivist and Assistant Director for the South Side Home Movie Project, Williams collects and preserves films recorded by residents of Chicago’s South Side. Shot between the late 1920s and early 1980s, each reel is a sliver of everyday life—pieces often missing from traditional histories of the city.
“Not only do we collect and preserve the films, we are collecting stories about the larger aspects of a person's life—the ways in which they explored their sense of freedom, domesticity or adventure,” said Williams.
Acclaimed film scholar Prof. Jacqueline Stewart began the project in 2005 to explore film culture outside of mainstream theatrical releases and to collect evidence of Chicago’s evolving South Side. Now an initiative of UChicago’s Arts + Public Life, the project has digitized more than 700 films—most of which live in a public archive.
When films arrive at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts—in everything from original 16mm film canisters to yellow Super 8 containers to gift boxes—Williams leads the careful inspection and digitization process.
But the team is creating more than a storage vault.
Williams and other project staff diligently host watch parties where donor families can memorialize and share stories. Public events like the project’s Spinning Home Movie series encourages musicians to incorporate archival holdings into new artwork—all the while introducing the films to new audiences.