For more than a decade, Prof. Jacqueline Najuma Stewart has worked to preserve, digitize and exhibit an understudied cultural resource: home movies from the Chicago neighborhoods in which she was born and raised.
In addition to founding the South Side Home Movie Project in 2005, the renowned University of Chicago scholar has earned national acclaim for her research on silent films—and was recently selected as Turner Classic Movies’ first scholar and African American host.
On Oct. 19, Stewart will discuss what home movie archives can teach us during her keynote address at Humanities Day, a daylong series of 40 on-campus events celebrating the research of the UChicago intellectual community. Her talk, which begins at 11 a.m. in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago, coincides with Home Movie Day, an international effort to preserve amateur films.
Stewart, who teaches in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, recently spoke about the motivations behind her work and what she hopes to accomplish with TCM. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
How did you become interested in exploring and advocating for mid-century home movies of South Side Chicagoans?
I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. I have always felt that narratives about Chicago did not take into account the everyday life and community experiences of people living on the South Side. The news media focuses on violence and crime in ways that do not resonate with my experience. When I began asking people if they had home movies, it became clear that this practice of informal representation could give us a deeper understanding of the rich cultural histories of South Side neighborhoods.
As a film historian, I became interested in orphan films, works that exist outside of commercial filmmaking. While commercial, narrative films have dominated the study of film, a growing number of scholars have been looking at orphan films like those for training, education, scientific inquiry and advertising. Home movies are an important part of this underexplored area of nontheatrical media. Traditionally, institutions have not archived amateur films. I became intrigued to learn what these home movies tell us about the histories of filmmaking as well as the histories of the communities they come from.