When did you first encounter silent film?
I grew up in Hyde Park, and my friends and I used to play in the Museum of Science and Industry just about every weekend. It has a Main Street exhibition with cobblestone streets and a nickelodeon that runs silent films. I remember sitting in there like, How are they telling the story without voices?
Why do you think many people find silent films baffling or cartoonish?
We haven’t always projected them in the right conditions. Silent films were shot at 18 frames per second, but the norm became 24. When they’re projected at 24 frames per second, they look too fast; they have a kind of unnatural quality. So people often stereotype silent films as being technically inferior. It’s just not accurate.
So many silent movies have not survived. Which lost film would you most love to see?
The early black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux made more than 40 films between 1918 and 1948. His very first, The Homesteader, scholars know about only through African American newspapers from the period. It would be extraordinary to see what the most prolific black filmmaker of his generation did the first time he had the ability to use the camera.
As a scholar of cinema, you encounter many horrifically racist movies from the past, such as The Birth of a Nation. Should films like that still be screened?
Even though these images can be difficult to look at, we have to watch and understand how these films worked. If more filmmakers and viewers looked at them, it would help us address the problems of representing race today. Maybe we could avoid some of the implicit ways that racist ideas get reinscribed in contemporary media culture.
Do you see many contemporary movies?
I try to. Whenever I’m on an airplane, I watch other people’s movies in the seats in front of me, which is essentially watching them as silent films. I love watching the ways that these stories are told visually. Like when you see a couple meeting somewhere, and the editing balances between looking at the man and looking at the woman. If their interaction is supposed to be tense, or if it’s immediately romantic — you can see all of those things without the music cuing you and without the dialogue informing you.
Do you ever get caught?
All the time. Then I just look at somebody else’s screen.