Yvonne Welbon on the “Hidden Figures” of Cinema History [Audio]

On October 16, 2019, to inaugurate a year of programming around the One Book One Northwestern 2019-2020 selection, Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space, Block Cinema welcomed Chicago-based filmmaker (and Northwestern Film Studies PhD) Yvonne Welbon to present her 2003 documentary Sisters in Cinema. In the film, Welbon explores the history of African American women feature film directors from the 1920s onward, including Cheryl Dunye, Zeinabu irene Davis, Julie Dash, and others.

After the screening Welbon sat down with Joyy Norris Chicago-based programmer and documentarian to discuss her own experiences as a working artist, scholar, and advocate, including her current project, a new Sisters in Cinema brick-and-mortar resource center on Chicago’s southside.

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Highlights from the Interview

“I once went to a talk where Elizabeth Catlett was at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a young lady stood up and she goes, “My professors don’t understand my films and what I’m making.” And Elizabeth Catlett gave the best advice, she said, “Learn what they are there to teach you, and you might have to go some place else to learn the rest.” So, that’s what I did; while I was here, I learned what my professors could teach me, but I made the city of Chicago my school.”

“I do think one of the keys to success, if you want to be a great filmmaker, is to make the films that only you can make. You know, sometimes you’re like, “That’s a cool film, I want to make something like that,” But what is it that you’re going to make? What story are you going to tell? I obviously had an urgency to tell this story, I mean I’m decades into this mission at this point, so what is a story that you have to tell that you would regret not having told in your life?”

“So, Sisters in Cinema started off as me looking for my sisters in cinema, and then it became a website, and my dissertation, and this documentary, and the book, and I’m going to say, along the way, I have amassed, accidentally perhaps, one of the largest archives of African American women’s media in the world, it’s in my basement in like 100 boxes, and now we’re having the Sisters in Cinema Media Arts Center. And it’s based in South Shore, on the South Side of Chicago, we will primarily be serving black women, black girls, and black gender non-conforming folks, and I’m really excited about it. Our goal is to open it around this time next year.”


To mark the 150th anniversary of coeducation at Northwestern, we celebrate our catalysts, past, present and future—individuals who take risks, chart their own course and inspire change.  This event was co-presented by Block Cinema with One Book One Northwestern , the Black Arts Initiative at Northwestern University and Northwestern 150 Years of Women.

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