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New museum aims to showcase history of creative labor by actors of color
Judy Woodruff: The Academy of Motion Pictures is best known as the organization that hands out Oscars and for the controversy in recent years about the lack of diversity in its ranks and awards.
Now the organization has opened a new museum in Los Angeles, said to be the largest in North America devoted to the art of filmmaking.
Jeffrey Brown took a tour with one of its leaders for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a museum of the movies, so Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane", R2-D2 from "Star Wars," and, of course, "The Wizard of Oz" and Dorothy's ruby slippers.
But, these days, more than a greatest hits approach is required of cultural institutions of all kinds, including this one.
Film historian Jacqueline Stewart:
Jacqueline Stewart, New Academy Museum of Motion Pictures: Some people like the term the magic of cinema. I prefer the term the power of cinema, because I think that's where we can really look at not just what happens to us on an emotional level, but think about that power as a kind of cultural power and political power.
Jeffrey Brown: Stewart is author and editor of books exploring film history, a professor at the University of Chicago.
Jacqueline Stewart: And thanks for spending the night with us here on Turner Classic Movies.
Jeffrey Brown: And, since 2019, host of "Silent Sunday Nights" on the turner classic movies network, presenting and discussing silent films. She's also a newly minted MacArthur Fellow, the so-called genius award.
Her view, you can love an art form through critiquing it, a lesson she learned in her Chicago childhood watching films with an aunt.
Jacqueline Stewart: And there were always these moments when, like, a maid would show up, or white people are having a conversation on a train and there's a kind of porter on the side, and our eye would go to those people.
And then I'd become curious about that actor, not just the character they were playing, but what was it like for them to be on the set in that way?
Jeffrey Brown: Now Stewart has a new role that allows her to present some of the stories behind what we see on screen. She's chief artistic and programming officer of the New Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
Outside, a design by architect Renzo Piano that encompasses the former May Company building, itself considered an architectural landmark from 1939. Inside, four floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions, with rooms dedicated to filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar and Spike Lee, one on early cinema history, and special emphasis on the various movie crafts, costumes, animation, editing and more, the labor that goes into a film, and is so important to Stewart.
Jacqueline Stewart: I used to get really annoyed when my students would leave a class screening as the credits were rolling, because, to me, that was kind of a slap in the face of all these people who had worked on the film.
It's typical. we walk out of the movie while the credits are rolling.
Jeffrey Brown: Sometimes, the lights go on.
Jacqueline Stewart: Yes, sometimes. Yes, the movie is over.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Jacqueline Stewart: But I think there is something absolutely essential about recognizing people's labor. That's not just true of filmmaking. It's true of everything that we do.
And so I think part of what this museum is doing is, it's exposing creative labor.
Jeffrey Brown: It's also aiming to expose something else, what's been missing from the picture, in at least one case, not on view in a room of Oscar statues, literally missing.
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." Later, though, her plaque, as they were then for supporting roles, went missing. The museum presents an empty case.
And what is it showing, to you?
Jacqueline Stewart: Well, the way she was treated at the Oscars ceremony. She was segregated in that space. The way that she was treated on the set of "Gone With the Wind," the way that so many Black actors were relegated to servant roles or minimal roles, unrealistic roles.
This, for me, I think for of us at the museum, is a way of recognizing not just Hattie McDaniel's experience, but all of the absences in film history that are based on racial segregation.
You're about to see one of the most enduringly popular films of all time, "Gone With The Wind."
Jeffrey Brown: "Gone With The Wind," of course, was controversial then and now for its romanticizing of slavery in the South. In 2020, Stewart provided an introduction to a new release of the film.
Jacqueline Stewart: And the film's treatment of this world through a lens of nostalgia denies the horrors of slavery, as well as its legacies of racial inequality.
Jeffrey Brown: She argues for recontextualizing such films, rather than taking them out of circulation.
The Academy Museum takes that approach as well. It adds to the canon in places, for example, highlighting the work of Oscar Micheaux, an early successful Black filmmaker.
Jacqueline Stewart: We even have here makeup cases that are marked as Black, Minstrel, Light, Egyptian, Chinese.
Jeffrey Brown: Chinese, yes.
It also displays makeup kits from the era of blackface.
Jacqueline Stewart: This for us is a really powerful way of recognizing that the industry itself knew what it was doing, and that it wasn't incidental or lighthearted, but actually these tools were crafted.
Jeffrey Brown: In more recent years, the Academy of Motion Pictures has been the target of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and criticized for the lack of diversity in its membership.
Jacqueline Stewart thinks the new museum has a role to play.
Jacqueline Stewart: As much as I'm excited about young people coming to this museum and being inspired, and as much as I'm excited about people who feel that they haven't been represented in museums or represented in films can come here and see themselves reflected in various ways, I'm also excited about filmmakers, about Academy members coming here, you know, to think about how to diversify their fields, how to be mentors to people who are not historically represented in these areas.
I think that that would be a real achievement. And I do think that there is a really strong desire among many Academy members that this museum can do that kind of work.
Jeffrey Brown: Stewart sees the MacArthur grant as recognition of her own work to study, critique and change how we watch the movies.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.