After 50 years, Rice Cinema remains relevant
Though once well-known, Rice Cinema can now feel like it only exists in whispers among the campus’ film buffs. Plastered in bold letters above the PSYC 101 classroom in Sewall Hall, Rice Cinema’s history stretches back to the establishment of the now-demolished Rice Media Center. Rice Cinema has not just seen the likes of introductory psychology students but also some of the biggest names in film history like Spike Lee, Andy Warhol and Roberto Rosselini.
The Rice Media Center was established in 1970 by John and Dominique de Menil, famous for their namesake Menil Collection. Both were major proponents of emphasizing the importance of art within Houston — specifically the value of cinema within the art world.
Funded by the Menils and under the direction of scholar Gerald O’Grady, filmmaker James Blue and photographer Geoff Winningham, the Rice Media Center opened. It provided the first photography and film courses at Rice, in addition to publicly-available film screenings, photo exhibitions and lectures. Roberto Rossellini, one of the foremost filmmakers of the Italian Neorealism movement, lectured at Rice on multiple occasions during these early years.
Charles Dove, a professor at Rice in the art department, has served as the director of Rice Cinema since 2002. The 1970s, he said, were the institution’s golden age.
“The Media Center flourished throughout the 70s because it had the budgetary situation of the Menils,” Dove said. “At the beginning, [there were] lots of films because there was no other way to see films, right? There was no cable TV … no streaming. So [there were] 16 millimeter screenings almost every night, and they were free.”
Brian Huberman, a professor in film, said the Menils tried to show films they believed would be educational, informative and impactful for the social consciousness of the masses.
“For the Menils … the medium was the message. They saw that film was an important conduit for the important information that a democratic society needed to have,” Huberman said. “We weren’t just teaching classes, we had a goddamn agenda.”
While the Rice Media Center closed in 2021 after 51 years, Rice Cinema still lives on. Screening films with state-of-the-art projection equipment, Rice Cinema plays a wide variety of movies and often includes speakers at their showings.
Rice Cinema also does event collaborations with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, Rice Cinema Club and even country consulates. In March 2023, the Consulate General of Ukraine in Houston helped screen the Oscar-nominated documentary “A House Made of Splinters.”
In September, Rice Cinema had multiple films lined up including “My Duty to Not Stay Silent,” “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Stowaways” and “Mandibles.”
“My Duty to Not Stay Silent” is a film by Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian filmmaker and human rights advocate. He has survived multiple poisoning attempts and is currently serving a 25-year sentence in Russia for his longtime protests against Russian president Vladimir Putin. His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, a fellow human rights advocate, was present at the screening on Sept. 7 for a discussion and Q&A about the current state of human rights in Russia.
As for the future of Rice Cinema, Dove said the organization will settle into its new place in the upcoming Sarofim Hall. There, Rice Cinema will get upgraded equipment, improved seats and a much bigger space than their current room in Sewall.
“It’s going to be right next to the Moody where the old Media Center was, so it’s going to take up that whole lot,” Dove said. “[Sarofim Hall will] be the whole art department, so it’ll have dark rooms and a sculpture lab and a print lab. Rice Cinema will be central to the building — it [will] be right there as you walk in.”
Dove said that both Rice Cinema and the now-gone Rice Media Center have been a vital piece of culture for not just Rice students but the Houston community, making its future move to Sarofim Hall all the more important.
“After [Rice Media Center’s 50th anniversary screening in 2020], I was talking to this woman who was crying,” Dove said. “She said, ‘This place means so much to me, it’s so sad you’re tearing it down.’ I said, ‘When did you go to Rice?’ and she said, ‘Oh, I never went to Rice, I just walked in one day … She was there for 30 years.”
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