Jacqueline Stewart and Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden in Conversation at the Academy Museum
February 24, 2023
The Academy Museum celebrated their groundbreaking exhibit Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 with a three-day summit February 3-5 featuring live entertainment, conversations, workshops, and more.
During the event, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel discussion with Academy Museum President Jacqueline Stewart, chair of the National Film Preservation Board, and the 14th Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, on the impact of film preservation and conservation. (Hayden is also the first woman and first African American to hold this position.) Later in the conversation, Stewart and Hayden were joined by two members of the Academy Museum’s Teen Council, Alexander McDaniel and Stephanie Barcenas. Below are some highlights from their illuminating talk.
Before the discussion started at the Academy Museum's Ted Mann Theater. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
Reflections on the Regeneration exhibit
Stewart opened the conversation by asking Hayden about her thoughts on the exhibit. “Well, we barely made it to this program, because it was so powerful,” Hayden laughed. She applauded the way the museum weaved together diverse stories and elements, from the pioneers and famous actors to costume design and behind the scenes tales.
The National Film Preservation Board
Stewart and Hayden got to know each other through the National Film Preservation Board. As the Librarian of Congress, Hayden convenes the Board to discuss the importance of preserving movie history. She admitted that many people may not think the Library of Congress is in the preservation business, but they are. As the largest library on Earth (with over 836 miles of shelving), the Library of Congress also boasts the largest collection of film in the world!
Dr. Carla Hayden at the Library of Congress.
The National Film Registry
In 1998, Congress passed a law, the National Film Preservation Act, to make it a point to preserve and conserve America’s film heritage. “Film needs to be treated as a treasure, too,” Hayden said. Part of this initiative is the National Film Registry. Each year, 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant films that are at least 10 years old are added to the list. (Over 800 movies have been selected since 1998.) “It’s part of the national history and heritage, and if you think about how people learn about what it means to be an American, the diversity of experiences that are documented in various art forms, film is right at the center of that,” Stewart said.
Any format is welcome, from narrative and experimental to student films and home movies. Board members, who are professionals from a variety of backgrounds in the industry, champion certain films and try to persuade others to see the significance through the lens they appreciate it through. “I have to say, I’ve been involved with a lot of discussions on different topics, but the film preservation board can get pretty hot!” Hayden quipped. “We get into it,” Stewart concurred. Hayden finds the discussions fascinating, and she gets to learn different parts of the process from them. “The passion about why film is important is what comes through the most,” she said. Hayden ultimately chooses the 25 titles, though part of the process is also open to the public. For instance, Iron Man (2008) was added recently, because it received the highest number of votes from fans.
Over the years, several movies by Black filmmakers have been added to the registry, including Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898), Body and Soul (1925) and The Blood of Jesus (1941). Hayden is proud of the list's increasing diversity, which affirms “the idea that representation matters beyond just a particular type of film… and we need to see it.”
Jacqueline Stewart on the TCM Classic Film Festival red carpet in 2019.
Challenges that arise during the restoration process
“Films were considered to be ephemeral,” Stewart told us. Some movies were discarded after their initial run, and select nitrate films were even broken down for their silver content! So, part of the issue is tracking down enough elements to put a movie back together and making sure the film is in good enough condition to work with.
While finding and piecing together elements is a big part of the battle, some movies are hiding in plain sight. This was true for footage of Bert Williams that had been sitting unidentified at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) since the 1930s and a collection Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito donated to the Academy Film Archive in 1999. Some films are also uncovered when people in the industry pass and their personal copies are found. Once elements are sourced, today’s digital tools can work wonders to help bring films back to life.
Restored films that have opened up doors
Stewart instantly brought up Williams again. A complex figure, Williams was a popular Black performer who wore blackface. Recently, an unreleased movie he made with other Black performers in 1913 was discovered at MoMA. Since it was never edited, you can see everything they shot, from setting the scene, to Williams getting in and out of character, to Black actors interacting with white filmmakers. “To me that just really opened up so many ways to rethink stereotypes and how they’re constructed and to think about interracial collaboration in those early days, so it was really quite remarkable,” Stewart said. “That’s the wonderful thing about this exhibit, it’s opening the doors to say, ‘What about this one, what about this one?’” Hayden added.
Films the Board champions
Hayden commented that the Board has “a running list” of titles they want to restore. As for Stewart, she always champions race films, such as Reform School (1939), which was screening after their conversation.
Stewart also mentioned that the Academy Film Archive has been working on restoring race films as part of the collection that Fishburne and Esposito donated over two decades ago. For one film in particular, Come On, Cowboy! (1948), preservationists had to think outside the box. The opening of the movie, two people sitting on a couch describing what is about to happen, is so choppy that it’s impossible to understand. So, they came up with a fix: They replaced the footage with the original scripted dialogue alongside images of the opening. “Those kinds of creative solutions, I think, help us to understand the context and the story that we’re supposed to get,” Stewart remarked, “but it also gives us insight into how film preservation needs to come up with different types of solutions.”
Speaking of race films, Hayden mentioned that some people on the Board were uncomfortable with that term. As Stewart explained, there was a whole genre of films made specifically for segregated audiences from the 1910s to late 1940s starring Black casts, and the term ‘race’ in this context was used as a sign of pride. Because some members hadn’t heard the phrase before, the conversation got heated, but once it was explained to them, they calmed down.
On including films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) in Regeneration
Hayden commended the Academy Museum for featuring D.W. Griffith’s controversial classic in the exhibit. “It was important to include that,” Stewart confirmed. She informed us that race movies were in many ways a response to this picture, “because people recognized that the power of creating Black images could not rest in the hands of a white supremacist vision. That had to be part of the story.”
Of course, adding the film required extensive discussion, highlighting the importance of placing the work in historical context for modern audiences. “You can’t ignore the importance of D.W. Griffith’s work in the history of American cinema and even more specifically in the long struggle to create more realistic and empowering Black images,” Stewart said, “but you have to explain why it’s there, and that’s really the critical part, providing that context.”
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