Author, film professor and archivist Jacqueline Stewart first fell in love with classic cinema as a kid staying up past bedtime to watch old movies on television with her aunt.
"As a film scholar, sometimes we don't really appreciate the history of showing films on TV, but that's the way that film was introduced to [many of] us," Stewart said. "Just the fact that it was a family experience, that kind of communal experience of watching it together in the comfort of home, it felt special."
The cinephile, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago as well as the institution's director of arts and public life, plus a three-time appointee to the National Film Preservation Board and chair of its diversity task force, can add TV personality to her credits as she makes history today in becoming Turner Classic Movies' first African-American host.
Stewart will host the network's "Silent Sunday Nights" programming, introducing curated films and providing historical context. This month's crop of films include Lewis Milestone's "Two Arabian Nights" (1927) and "The Racket" (1928) as well as 1912's "Cleopatra."
"I think that the 'Silent Sunday Nights' are a really perfect space for me," Stewart said. "I can get into more detail about a period of film history that might be more obscure to some viewers, about some of the aspects of the production and some of the talent involved, where they came from and how they got started in film, which was still a new medium at the time.
"I hope that because I'm a teacher I'm able to interest people in these films," she added. "I really do think that once you give them a chance, no matter how old they are, you can really come to appreciate the uniqueness of this work and how rewarding it is to get to know silent film when we try to understand what happens later on in film history."
We caught up with Stewart in advance of her new gig.
How does it feel to be TCM's first African-American host?
It feels really exciting. I can say that right from the start I've been able to talk to the TCM team about showing work that really showcases the diversity of the silent period. And it has just been really gratifying to see that this will be a space where I can do that.
How much impact overall will you have on programming?
A lot. I was invited right out the gate to talk about what films we would want to show. I'm very excited that we're going to show one of the earliest films by Oscar Micheaux, his 1920 film "The Symbol of the Unconquered." There was a new score commissioned for the film by the legendary jazz musician Max Roach, who was a drummer, so the score was just drums. It gets us out of the sense that silent films are accompanied with this kind of corny, tinny piano. That film gives us an incredible insight into how silent films can motivate contemporary artists to give them new meaning and to collaborate with them.
What do you love most about classic film?
I love the acting. The range of acting styles that you see, especially in the silent period, I really appreciate that. And there's something about their popularity that's just absolutely fascinating to me. This is a period where people are going to the movies multiple times per week. It's a part of people's everyday lives that it isn't necessarily anymore. And so the kinds of fan cultures that were being created during this time and the attachment that people had to particular stars, I guess that's one of the things that's really meaningful to me.