Dr. Chuck Jackson Awarded $20K NEH Grant
By Hayden Bergman
Since 1965, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded billions of dollars in grants to high-quality, high-impact humanities projects that will promote excellence, wisdom, and the “lessons of history to all Americans.” Now, our own Dr. Chuck Jackson, Professor of English, joins the prestigious group of awardees, as he earned a NEH grant to research the films of Jessie Maple, a Black American filmmaker who was one of the first to write, direct, and produce a feature-length film, “Will” (1981). He plans to research and write an article on her three early films that illuminate her cinematography and 1970s Harlem. Dr. Jackson’s project, titled “Jessie Maple’s Early Films: Moody Close-Ups on Harlem, 1975–81,” was awarded $20,000.
We caught up with Dr. Jackson to discuss his research and its implications for the academic community and beyond.
What gap do you view your research as filling, or what body of knowledge are you furthering (or revising)?
As the first Black woman in the nation to direct a feature-length narrative film in the post-1945 era ("Will," 1981), Jessie Maple changed U.S. film history for good, but little to no scholarly research on her and her films exists. The NEH Award allows me to return to the Black Film Center & Archive in Bloomington, Indiana, which houses Maple’s films and other materials in a small collection. My research will vivify the relationship between parts of Maple’s life and her early films, make an argument about her late-1970s aesthetic, and add to the academic fields of Black film studies, nontheatrical film studies, and archival film studies.
What drew you to research Jessie Maple? What resonated with you about her work or background?
A former research project of mine on a collection of 1970s films by James E. Hinton, also a little-known Black filmmaker, led me to the films of Jessie Maple, who was Hinton’s contemporary. As with Hinton, I am drawn to Maple’s fiercely independent spirit. She worked outside of an established Hollywood system; she took direct inspiration from the people of and public spaces in Harlem; and she remained deeply committed to the social and cultural usefulness of film.
Why is it important to learn more about Jessie Maple?
Jessie Maple might be called a small filmmaker because of the number of films she directed; however, her work represents a significant part of film history, and that history remains largely untold. Maple’s films exemplify her keen attunement to other peoples’ struggles, but the archive also holds important evidence of her own struggles, including her daily experiences as a camera person and as a director, fields dominated by white men throughout the 20th century (and still today). The news of her passing at the age of 86 in May of this past year throws into stark relief how little is known and shared about Jessie Maple, and my hope is that my work helps restore her and her films to the global cinematic imaginary.
How does her work connect with today's audience?
Maple’s films seldom circulate outside of the archive, so those lucky enough to view them will encounter her unique vision of people hanging out on the streets of Harlem, responding to some of the most pressing social issues of the late-1970s. Whether gathered to celebrate at a block party and talking about feeling financially strapped or huddled together on a corner waiting for a methadone clinic to open and talking about feeling like something critical is missing, Maple embeds her films with the power of expressing of Black feelings in public. Today’s audiences will see this in her first films, including her fictional film “Will,” which is perhaps most dramatically attuned to how we make Black lives matter through cinema. Maple set a historical precedent for today’s most beloved cinematographers and directors, including Ava DuVernay, Kira Kelly, Nia Costa, and Kasi Lemmons, among others.
You can read the NEH announcement and full list of awardees here.
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