Cinema scholar Jacqueline Stewart, AM’93, PhD’99, explores Chicago’s changing filmgoing scene.
By Susie Allen, AB’90
As students file tentatively into Classics 312, Jacqueline Stewart, AM’93, PhD’99, greets them with an encouraging smile. “I’m glad you found the room,” she says.
Showing up in the right place isn’t a given for this mixed graduate and undergraduate course. Stewart’s Chicago Film Cultures class includes sessions in Cobb Hall, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Studio Movie Grill in the Chatham neighborhood, and the Stony Island Arts Bank on 68th Street. The reading list is also wide-ranging, with texts about local film societies and festivals, amateur filmmaking, and historic moviegoing practices. There’s a hands-on component too: students will curate a night of public film programming at the Stony Island Arts Bank.
Today’s class, however, is in the more traditional sit-around-the-table-and-discuss-the-reading vein. Stewart, professor in cinema and media studies, lays out the agenda: they’ll start with a chapter from Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) before shifting to a discussion about the kinds of evidence film historians use in their work.
Stewart turns things over to the undergraduate who will lead today’s discussion. The student begins by recapping the Gomery chapter, which traces the history of racial segregation in movie theaters. In the South, African American audiences either attended black-only theaters or adhered to restrictive guidelines in white theaters. Sometimes African Americans were permitted only on certain days of the week or after the last showing for white audiences. At other theaters, they entered through a separate door leading to a segregated balcony.
The discussion leader poses a question to the group: What forces led to the integration of movie theaters? One undergraduate suggests the change came about in part because film producers realized black audiences were financially valuable. In the 1960s, with Hollywood studios in the midst of a financial crisis, “all of a sudden these blaxploitation films came around — Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s …” She pauses for a moment, searching for the name. “It’s a really long title.”
Stewart steps in to supply the full title of the risqué 1971 action film — Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song — which follows an African American protagonist as he evades the police following a wrongful arrest. The film did well at the box office and inspired many imitators.
“Yeah,” the undergraduate says. Hollywood “saw dollar signs” in these black-themed films.
Another student ties the push for desegregation to the rise of the blockbuster: “They’re making these movies that weren’t marketed to a specific niche, or a specific demographic, but they were just like, ‘Jaws is for everybody.’” And blockbusters needed broad audiences in order to be financially successful.
A male student recalls a preintegration film about the Harlem Globetrotters — Go, Man, Go (1954) — that Gomery mentions in the chapter. The film was a success in the North but hardly shown in the South in order to avoid protests or public controversy.
“Right,” Stewart says. Until the 1960s, Hollywood studios accepted the reality of segregation, even though it hurt their bottom line. They knew some films could not be screened nationwide and that others would be altered by local authorities in the South to eliminate positive depictions of African American characters. Early in her career, the pioneering African American star Lena Horne was usually given supporting roles so that her scenes could be excised more easily.
“Local and regional control over the content of films is a really important part of the story,” Stewart says — and one that seems almost sacrilegious to us today. “Can you imagine if some guy in Nebraska decides ‘I’m going to cut this scene out of this Scorsese film’? But projectionists, exhibitors, had a huge amount of power during this period.”
As the discussion of theater desegregation winds down, Stewart switches gears. “It’s going to be really important for us to think about questions of evidence,” she says.
Local and regional control over the content of films is a really important part of the story.
The readings for the course so far have used different types of material to support their claims about movie-going. For instance, film scholar Gerald Butters — the author of another of today’s assigned readings, about black film audiences in Chicago — uses interviews to tell his story. “He interviews my mom for this book, which I totally forgot,” Stewart says. “He’s like, ‘Chicago mother Barbara Holt,’ and … wait, that’s my mother.”
Stewart describes a struggle with evidence she faced while working on her 2005 book about African American moviegoing during the silent film era, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (University of California Press).
What Stewart wanted to find, but couldn’t, were firsthand accounts of what moviegoers were thinking and feeling while in the theater. So she had to get creative.
“One of the things that I recognized, being a graduate student here in the English department,” she says, “was that there are a number of African American novels that have scenes in which characters go to the movies. Richard Wright’s Native Son, for example, has a scene — have you read Native Son?” she asks the class. Crickets. “Have any of you read Native Son? It’s OK if you haven’t. I’m just curious.” Finally a first-year undergrad pipes up, sounding shy. “I have.”
Stewart describes the plot of the 1940 novel, which was “made into a terrible movie — actually kind of beautifully terrible. You should watch it sometime.”
She reads from a Native Son passage in which the protagonist, Bigger, and his friend Jack go to the movies. In her book, Stewart tells the class, she suggests the scene is based on Wright’s “own experiences going to the movies himself, on the experiences of other young black men of his generation. And that the mode of fiction allows for him to get at some of the material and emotional and psychological details of moviegoing that we don’t get from other sources.”
Stewart continues the exercise, handing out a photocopied excerpt from Gwendolyn Brooks’s novella Maud Martha (1953), in which the African American protagonist goes to the movies with her husband. The students take turns reading aloud from it.
Afterward they consider the two passages. A graduate student notices something curious: how quickly discussion of the films themselves is superseded by the narrator’s thoughts and imagination. In the darkness of the theater, she notes, the protagonists of both Maud Martha and Native Son have license to imagine other lives and experiences.
“Thank you for that,” Stewart says. How we experience films and what happens when we watch them is, she agrees, a foundational question, and one she hopes they’ll continue to ponder. “How do films speak to people, or what do people find in them?”
But there’s not much more time to discuss that or anything else today. In just a minute, the class will head to the Stony Island Arts Bank to begin planning their end-of-quarter screening. As they have all quarter, they’ll keep moving.
For Chicago Film Cultures (CMST 21805/31805), Stewart selected a mixture of readings she knows well — very well in the case of the chapter from her own book — and others that are newer to her. “It was OK with me to be eclectic,” she says.
Students read excerpts from works including Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), Alison Griffiths’s Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View(Columbia University Press, 2008), and “Disentangling the International Festival Circuit: Genre and Iranian Cinema,” a chapter from Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories (Oxford University Press, 2010).
In addition to planning the end-of-quarter event, students must submit a “research dossier” on a topic of their choosing at the end of the quarter, as well as five brief screening reports “on films you view independently, covering each of the categories covered in class (‘minority’ cinemas/communities; festivals; cinémathèques/film societies; museums/schools; microcinemas/multi-venue film programs).”
Note: This story originally appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine’s Spring/17 issue.