The 2020 National Film Registry Inductees

The Daily — Dec 14, 2020
Seret Scott in Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982)

Rediscovered gems from the silent era, stories rooted in the Black experience, pioneering women directors, and even a superhero blockbuster are among the twenty-five films selected for induction into the National Film Registry for their “cultural, historic, or aesthetic importance to the nation’s film heritage.” Some of them are in dire need of restoration, and now, seeing to that need will be prioritized. Announcing this year’s round, the Library of Congress emphasizes that nine of these titles have been directed by women, seven of them by people of color.

The oldest film of the lot is Suspense (1913). Codirected by Lois Weber and her husband, Phillips Smalley, it’s “an action thriller with a moral core,” as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody has written. A woman, home alone with her baby, is alarmed when an attacker intrudes; she calls her husband, who races home from work to save her. “Weber makes extraordinarily agile and expressive use of the camera, with jolting angles and shifts in perspective,” writes Brody. Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), featuring the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, and With Car and Camera Around the World (1929), a travelogue shot on 35 mm by Walter Wanderwell and Aloha Wanderwell Baker, capture the era’s ongoing enthrallment with the speed and range offered by motorized wheels.

Only three of the fourteen films that Ida May Park directed for the Universal Film Manufacturing Company between 1917 and 1920 are believed to have survived. Bread (1918) is the story of a small-town girl’s failed attempt to become a star in the big city. The Battle of the Century (1927), a two-reeler starring Laurel and Hardy, makes for lighter fare.

This year’s list skips the 1930s altogether, cutting straight to Cabin in the Sky (1943), one of a handful of films here that, though they focus on Black characters, were directed by white filmmakers. Cabin, an adaptation of the Broadway musical, was Vincente Minnelli’s first feature as a director, and it stars Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Lena Horne. Busby Berkeley oversaw the staging of one of the dance numbers, “Shine.” Jump cut to two decades later, when, playing a vagabond laborer in Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963), Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win the Oscar for best actor.

Mel Stuart’s Wattstax (1973) captures a concert staged in Los Angeles that featured Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, and Rufus Thomas. Their performances are “plaited with scenes of Black Angelenos conversing on a variety of topics and [Richard] Pryor killing it with bits performed in a small nightclub,” writes 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson. “Verité footage of the South Los Angeles neighborhood is interspersed throughout: church fronts, Angela Davis murals, couples in love, kids at play, and, after Pryor’s intro, Simon Rodia’s kaleidoscopic Watts Towers, their majesty enhanced by the Dramatics’ ‘Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get’ thundering on the soundtrack.” And John Landis’s The Blues Brothers (1980) spotlights numbers performed by Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and Cab Calloway.

Melvin Van Peebles dedicated Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) “to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the man.” In the New York Times, Wesley Morris notes that Sweetback is often cited “as the film that unleashed Black, do-it-your-damn-self moviemaking in this country—a cheap, amateurish, inarguably strange chase picture about a fugitive cop-killer, whom Van Peebles plays as if he’s waiting for an actor with a more radical sense of damnation or professionalism to take over.” Ultimately, though, this film “was a mess Black Americans needed somebody to make.”

In his 2010 PBS documentary Freedom Riders, Stanley Nelson focuses on 1961 as a pivotal year in the civil rights movement, and from 1982 come two films directed by Black women. In the New York Times, J. Hoberman has suggested that Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground is “an anomaly—not just because Ms. Collins’s only feature-length film was among the first directed by an African-American woman or because ‘Negro’ is the preferred term of self-description for the middle-class professionals at the center of her film. Given its self-contained milieu, arty references and cerebral humor, Losing Ground is far closer to Eric Rohmer’s or Woody Allen’s contemporary brand of haute bourgeois comedy than to Spike Lee’s confrontational social satire.” In her half-hour short, Illusions, Julie Dash “uses film itself as a metaphor for the myths fostered by whites and men about Blacks and women,” wrote Marcia Pally in the Village Voice.

Writing for MoMA in 2018, Anne Morra noted that Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) still “speaks to many of the appalling issues percolating in today’s #MeToo movement: unwanted advances, harassment, misogynistic behavior, the division of power between genders, and sexual assault.” In The Devil Never Sleeps (1994), Latina filmmaker Lourdes Portillo returns to Mexico to investigate the suspicious death of her uncle. Codirectors Joan Lander and Puhipau take on threats to Hawaiian culture in their documentary, Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege (2006). And with The Hurt Locker (2008), Kathryn Bigelow became the first—and so far, only—woman to win the Oscar for best director.

2008 also gave us Heath Ledger’s immortal turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Another popular favorite on this year’s list is Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s animated Shrek (2001), which spawned three sequels. Further perennials include Otto Preminger’s noirish The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) with Frank Sinatra as a drug addict; A Clockwork Orange (1971), the most controversial movie in Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre; Randal Kleiser’s 1978 adaptation of the hit musical Grease; Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (1993), based on Amy Tan’s novel about Chinese American mothers and daughters; and Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Wim Wenders’s joyous documentary on an ensemble of legendary Cuban musicians.

Perhaps the most unusual standout in this year’s selection is The Ground, a twenty-minute film made between 1993 and 2001 by Robert Beavers, “the maker of about twenty extraordinarily demanding, uncompromising, plotless films of often heart-stopping beauty,” as P. Adams Sitney wrote in a 2001 issue of Film Comment. “All of Beavers’s films are distillations of the genius loci: he takes the measure of his life in Brussels, Bern, Zurich, Athens, Rome, and other cities, in the rhythms of his editing and the timbre of his images and sounds.”

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