By Elaine Hegwood-Bowen, M.S.J.
The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. A forbidden love affair, the ravages of alcoholism, an animated classic, a kiss that broke the color barrier and dinosaurs returned from extinction represent the diversity of the class of 2018. This year’s films span 107 years, from 1898 to 2005. They include blockbusters, documentaries, silent movies, animation and independent films.
And among the 25 films included in this prestigious group of America’s most influential motion pictures to be inducted into the Registry—because of their cultural, historic and aesthetic importance to the nation’s film heritage—are three African-American films that truly showcase the ethnic diversity of American cinema.
The 1997 “Eve’s Bayou” was written and directed by Black female director Kasi Lemmons and co-produced by Samuel L. Jackson, who stars in this family drama. “Eve’s Bayou” proved one of the indie surprises of the 1990s. The film tells a Southern gothic tale about a 10-year-old African-American girl who, during one long, hot Louisiana summer in 1962 discovers some harsh truths beneath her genteel family’s fragile façade.
The film’s standout cast includes Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Lisa Nicole Carson, Branford Marsalis and the remarkable Jurnee Smollett, who plays the lead. The tag line of this film was very apropos: “The secrets that hold us together can also tear us apart.”
Said Lemmons: “It’s such an honor to return from production on my fifth film, ‘Harriet,’ to find that my first, ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ is being included in the National Film Registry. As a Black woman filmmaker, it is particularly meaningful to me and to future generations of filmmakers, that the Library of Congress values diversity of culture, perspective and expression in American cinema and recognizes ‘Eve’s Bayou’ as worthy of preservation. I’m thrilled that ‘Eve’s Bayou’ is being included in the class of 2018!”
The short, animated film, “Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People,” was produced by one of the first Black female animators, Ayoka Chenzira. “For my independently produced animated experimental film to be included in the National Film Registry is quite an honor,” said Chenzira. “I never imagined that ‘Hair Piece’ would be considered to have cultural significance outside of its original intent, which was a conversation and a love letter to Black women (and some men) about identity, beauty and self-acceptance in the face of tremendous odds.”
The film is an insightful and funny short animated film examining the problems that African-American women have with their hair. Chenzira was a key figure in the development of African-American filmmakers in the 1980s through her own films and work to expand opportunities for others. Writing in the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin lauded this eccentric yet jubilant film. She noted that the narrator “tells of everything from the difficulty of keeping a wig on straight, to the way in which Vaseline could make a woman’s hair “sound like the man in ‘The Fly’ saying ‘Help me’!”
In addition, “Something Good – Negro Kiss,” a 29-second silent film shot in 1898, believed to be the earliest known footage of Black intimacy onscreen, is also included in this year’s list.
According to scholars and archivists, American cinema was a few years old by 1898 and distributors struggled to entice audiences to this new medium. Among their gambits to find acceptable “risqué” fare, the era had a brief run of “kissing” films. Most famous is the 1896 Edison film “The Kiss,” which spawned a rash of mostly inferior imitators.
However, in “Something Good,” the chemistry between vaudeville actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown was palpable. Also noteworthy is this film’s status as the earliest known surviving Selig Polyscope Company film. The Selig Company had a good run as a major American film producer from its founding in 1896 until its ending around 1918.
“Something Good” exists in a 19th-century nitrate print from the University of Southern California Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive. USC Archivist Dino Everett and Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of the University of Chicago discovered and brought this important film to the attention of scholars and the public.
Field notes, “What makes this film so remarkable is the non-caricatured representation and naturalistic performance of the couple. As they playfully and repeatedly kiss, in a seemingly improvised performance, Suttle and Brown constitute a significant counter to the racist portrayal of African-Americans otherwise seen in the cinema of its time. This film stands as a moving and powerful image of genuine affection and is a landmark of early film history.”
Footage from the “Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition” in 1908, which is also on the 2018 list, provides glimpses into the lives and culture of various Native-American tribes. This year’s list also includes a contemporary film showcasing Native-Americans in “Smoke Signals” (1998). It was the first feature film to be written, directed and co-produced by American Indians.
Other films include “Brokeback Mountain,” “Jurassic Park,” “My Fair Lady,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Paul Newman’s unforgettable “Hud,” the opulent musical “My Fair Lady” and the rocking sounds of “Monterey Pop.”
“The National Film Registry turns 30 this year and for those three decades, we have been recognizing, celebrating and preserving this distinctive medium,” the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, said. “These cinematic treasures must be protected because they document our history, culture, hopes and dreams.”
Selection to the Registry will help ensure that these films will be preserved for all time.
Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed “Brokeback Mountain,” which was released in 2005, also has the distinction of becoming the newest film on the registry, while the 1891 “Newark Athlete” actually is the oldest.
“Brokeback Mountain” is a contemporary Western drama that won the Academy Award for best screenplay (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) and Golden Globe awards for best drama, director (Lee), and screenplay. It depicts a secret and tragic love affair between two closeted gay ranch hands.
They furtively pursue a 20-year relationship despite marriages and parenthood until one of them dies violently, reportedly by accident, but possibly, as the surviving lover fears, in a brutal attack. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the short story upon which the film was based, described it as “a story of destructive rural homophobia.”
Haunting in its unsentimental depiction of longing, lonesomeness, pretense, sexual repression and ultimately love, “Brokeback Mountain” features Heath Ledger’s remarkable performance that conveys a lifetime of self-torment through a pained demeanor, near inarticulate speech and constricted, lugubrious movements. In his review, Newsweek’s David Ansen wrote that the film was “a watershed in mainstream movies, the first gay love story with A-list Hollywood stars.”
“I didn’t intend to make a statement with ‘Brokeback Mountain,’” Lee said. “I simply wanted to tell a purely Western love story between two cowboys. To my great surprise, the film ended up striking a deep chord with audiences; the movie became a part of the culture, a reflection of the darkness and light—of violent prejudice and enduring love—in the rocky landscape of the American heart. More than a decade has passed since ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was released, but I hope that this film, a small movie with wide open spaces, continues to express something both fresh and fundamental about my adopted country.”
The seminal music-festival film “Monterey Pop,” featuring some of the biggest names in music, was directed by D.A. Pennebaker and produced by John Phillips and Lou Adler. “I am extremely pleased and proud, as I am sure John Phillips would be, that ‘Monterey Pop’ has been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry,” said Adler. “Pleased that the film brings recognition to the artists involved in a cultural explosion of music festivals and celebrates a generation in tune with music and love.” Adler added: “Proud to have collaborated with D.A. Pennebaker who crafted a film that perfectly documented the time, the music and introduced a genre of film making to be honored forever…long after June 16, 17 and 18, 1967 as proven by this selection.”
Commented Pennebaker: “It was for us a vast undertaking. We were using all five of our homemade cameras, some with 1200-foot reels we’d never tried before, praying they’d all work, and that it turned out as wonderful as it did I can still scarcely believe. But every camera was guided by an artist, some for the first time, looking for the poetry of the music and its artists as never before. It was an inspired crew and every member of it earned this selection into the National Film Registry. They were the best.”
Other films include Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller “Rebecca;” film noir classics “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945) and “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947), which was directed by Orson Welles; Disney’s 1950 animation “Cinderella;” “Days of Wine and Roses” that features Lee Remick, Jack Lemmon and Debbie Megowan in Blake Edwards’ uncompromising commentary about alcoholism (1962); James L. Brooks’ 1987 treatise on the tumultuous world of television news, “Broadcast News” and Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking 1993 tale about the rebirth of dinosaurs, “Jurassic Park.”
There are myriad other titles, and many of the older films are regularly broadcast on the Turner Classic Movies network. Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act, each year the Librarian of Congress names to the National Film Registry 25 motion pictures that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. The films must be at least 10 years old.
The 2018 selections bring the number of films in the registry to 750, which is a small fraction of the Library’s vast moving-image collection of more than 1.3 million.
Also, select titles from 30 years of the National Film Registry are freely available online in the National Screening Room. More information about the National Film Registry can be found at loc.gov/film.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.”