Acting Librarian of Congress David Mao announced today the annual selection of 25 motion pictures to be named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. These films, which epitomize the diversity and richness of the nation’s cinematic heritage, have been identified as motion pictures that deserve to be preserved because of their cultural, historic or aesthetic importance.
“Selecting a film for the National Film Registry recognizes its importance to cinema and America’s cultural and artistic history,” said Mao. “The registry is an invaluable way to advance public awareness of the richness, creativity and variety of our nation’s film heritage.”
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 Librarian makes the annual registry selections after conferring with the distinguished members of the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) and Library film staff, as well as considering thousands of public nominations. The public is urged to nominate titles for next year’s registry at the NFPB’s website.
Spanning the period 1894-1997, the films named to the registry include Hollywood blockbusters, documentaries, silent movies, animation, shorts, independent and experimental motion pictures. This year’s selections bring the number of films in the registry to 675, which is a small fraction of the Library’s vast moving-image collection of 1.3 million items.
Below are the films featuring black people as main subjects or as major creative forces, in chronological order by their release dates.
– “John Henry and the Inky-Poo” (1946)
The African-American folk hero John Henry was probably based on an actual person who worked on the railroads around the 1870s. The legend began to appear in print in the early 20th century, but emerged early on as a popular folk song. Akin to other such rugged folk heroes as Paul Bunyan, John Henry is said to have worked as a “steel-driving man,” hammering a steel drill into rock and earth to build tunnels and lay track. According to legend, his prowess was measured in a competition against a steam-powered hammer. John Henry won the race against “Inky-Poo,” only to collapse and die, hammer in hand. Stop-motion animation pioneer George Pal created this short film after the NAACP and Ebony magazine criticized his offensively stereotyped Jasper series of cartoons. The magazine later praised “John Henry” as the first Hollywood film to feature African-American folklore in a positive light and to treat its characters with “dignity, imagination, poetry, and love.” Highly popular during its time, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. It has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Watch it in full below.
– “Imitation of Life” (1959)
Film melodrama comes in many variations, but director Douglas Sirk’s style of domestic melodrama is marked by stylized interiors and use of mirrors, where the role of photography is crucial, with exquisite use of primary colors and camera angles to convey emotion and mood. During the 1950s, the Universal team of Sirk, producers Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith, cinematographer Russell Metty and composer Frank Skinner, released a series of glossy, often deliriously flamboyant “women’s picture” melodramas, including “All That Heaven Allows,” “Magnificent Obsession,” “Written on the Wind” and “Imitation of Life.” The often-lurid plots in these films may have seemed laughable and unrealistic, but the emotional impact on audiences packed a wallop that led to major box-office bonanzas for Universal. Sirk’s last American film, “Imitation of Life,” is based on the Fannie Hurst novel about two mothers (one white and one African-American) and their daughters (one white and one who wishes to pass for white). Sirk’s 1959 version (with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the mothers) offers a telling contrast to the more restrained melodramatic style used by John Stahl in the 1934 version (previously selected for the registry), starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. One can also spot in Sirk’s film fascinating glimpses at the evolving social standards and mores the country had undergone in the 25 years that elapsed between the two films, particularly in the characters of Moore and her daughter Susan Kohner. Sirk’s version ends with Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World” during the penultimate funeral scene and daughter Susan Kohner begging forgiveness while hugging her dead mother’s casket.
– “Portrait of Jason” (1967)
In one of the first LGBT films widely accepted by general audiences, Shirley Clarke explored the blurred lines between fact and fiction, allowing her subject, Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne), a gay hustler and nightclub entertainer, to talk about his life with candor, pathos and humor in one 12-hour shoot. Clarke originally envisioned Jason as the only character, but she subsequently revealed: “When I saw the rushes I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us [the off-screen voices. her crew and herself], and so our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter remain part of the film.” Thought to have been lost, a 16 mm print of the film was discovered at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in 2013 and has since been restored by the Academy Film Archive, Milestone Films and Modern Videofilm.
– “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” (1968)
William Greaves worked at the intersection of many cultural focal points, including as an original co-host and producer of the landmark “Black Journal” public television series. He, however, is perhaps best known for his prolific work as a documentary film director and producer. He was associated with more than 200 productions during his career. His best-known film, “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” faced a strange, lengthy road to recognition. Greaves shot the film in 1968 and completed production in 1971 in hopes of a debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but was turned down. The film then spent two decades unseen before being rediscovered by a Brooklyn Museum curator who premiered it at a retrospective of Greaves’ voluminous work in cinema. The film is a unique 1960s’ time capsule, a telling look at the myriad tensions involved in film creation—a film on the making of a film—with three camera crews recording different parts of the process and personalities involved (director, actors, crew, bystanders). Though Greaves is undoubtedly the film’s visionary auteur—notable for an African-American filmmaker in the 1960s—it is truly a film made collectively by Greaves and his multi-racial crew, whose staging of an on-set rebellion becomes the film’s drama and its platform for sociopolitical critique and revolutionary philosophy. Filmed entirely on location in New York City’s Central Park, with a score by Miles Davis, Greaves’ film serves as a vivid tabloid of this heady historical era and a memorable document of this creatively prosperous period of American independent filmmaking.
Watch “John Henry and the Inky-Poo” in full below: