TCM’s ‘Silent Sundays’ returns with new host

NADINE MATTHEWS | 9/12/2019, 3:21 p.m.
Thanks to filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson, University of Chicago Cinema and Media Studies professor Jacqueline Stewart ...
Jacqueline Stewart

Thanks to filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson, University of Chicago Cinema and Media Studies professor Jacqueline Stewart says, there was a Black presence in the U.S. film industry from its very beginnings. Stewart, who is the new (and first Black) host of Turner Classic Movies’ “Silent Sundays” explains. “The activities of Black filmmakers started much earlier than most people imagined,” she said in an interview. “Before Spike Lee or the Blaxploitation period of the ’70s. Even before some of the iconic performances of the classic Hollywood era like Lena Horne, or Nicholas brothers, or Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. The first, Black actors and directors and writers really got started in 19-teens.”

The first film company devoted to the production of “race films” was the Chicago-based Ebony Film Company, which began operation in 1915. The first Black-owned film company was The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded by actor Noble Johnson in 1916.

“Silent Sundays,” which airs movies from the silent era as well as forgotten gems and international classics, resumed its 2019 season in early September after a summer hiatus. Says Stewart about the current vision for the series, “We’re hoping to really showcase the diversity of contributions to filmmaking, going back to the earliest days.”

This season’s slate will include films such as Rex Ingram’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Master of the House” and “Passion of Joan of Arc,” F.W. Murnau’s “Faust” and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Chorus.” Stewart explains, “Ozu is renowned as a world cinema pioneer and auteur. After World War II, he really developed a signature and uniquely Japanese style of filmmaking that’s unparalleled, so here viewers get the opportunity to see the early days of his career.”

Stewart cites the recent discovery of another so-called “race film” of the era to make the point that Blacks were involved from the very beginning. “Recently, the archivists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York discovered footage from a film made in 1913 that had never been completed and released. It contains a who’s-who of New York Black theater and this is before ‘The Birth Of A Nation’ was released. African-American artists, both working on screen and behind the scenes, always knew how powerful film could be, and they were participating in the development of film as a medium.”

Stewart feels Micheaux can rightly be called the first really big Black filmmaker. “We can say that he is the first really significant African-American filmmaker because his films reached so many audiences and have such profound national presence.”

Part of the reason for the lack of information on early Black filmmakers is because many of those films weren’t preserved. A lax attitude to film preservation marks silent films as a whole and Black silent film in particular. Much of what is known about some of them is due to the existence of archival content in the Black press. “We know about many of these films because they were written about in the Black press. I’ve done so much research through historical African-American newspapers,” Stewart explains.