Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has announced the annual selection of the 25 influential motion pictures to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Selected for their cultural, historic, or aesthetic importance to preserve the nation’s film heritage, the newest selections include epic trilogies, major roles for Jennifer Lopez and Cicely Tyson, extraordinary, animated features, comedy and music, and films that took on racially motivated violence against people of color decades ago.
The 2021 selections represent one of the most diverse classes of films to enter the registry, with movies dating back nearly 120 years and representing the work of Hollywood studios, independent filmmakers, documentarians, women directors, filmmakers of color, students and the silent era of film. The selections bring the number of films in the registry to 825, representing a portion of the 1.7 million films in the Library’s collections.
“Films help reflect our cultural history and creativity — and show us new ways of looking at ourselves — though movies haven’t always been deemed worthy of preservation,” said Hayden. “The National Film Registry will preserve our cinematic heritage, and we are proud to add 25 more films this year. The Library of Congress will work with our partners in the film community to ensure these films are preserved for generations to come.”
Two films selected for the registry drew significant public support this year through online nominations. The original Star Wars trilogy’s third release from “a galaxy far, far away” in 1983 drew the most public votes for Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi, while the kickoff to another epic trilogy of films, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring from 2001, based on the beloved stories of J.R.R. Tolkien, also earned strong public support.
“In 1951, Professor Tolkien expressed the wish that ‘... other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama...’ might one day come to the world of middle-earth. And they did — actors and artists, composers and musicians, linguists, and digital wizards — a myriad of talent came together to bring his vast work of imagination to life on the screen,” said the filmmaking team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. “It is a great honor to have The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring selected this year by the National Film Registry. We are proud to be part of an archive that celebrates and preserves the art of visual storytelling, for generations to come.”
Two innovative animated features from different eras also join the registry this year. Disney’s Flowers and Trees, which was released in the dark days of the Great Depression in 1932, showcased the magic of cinema with birds singing and trees in full color. It was the first three-strip Technicolor film shown to the public and set a new standard.
Some 76 years later, Pixar Animation Studios would release a unique masterpiece with 2008’s WALL•E, combining animation, science fiction, an ecological cautionary tale and a charming robot love story. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Outstanding Animated Feature.
Several films explore stories from the nation’s diverse communities that often carry universal themes. Selena, the 1997 biographical film of Tejana star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, starred Jennifer Lopez, in her first major movie role, and Edward James Olmos. Directed by Gregory Nava, it told the story of the young singer’s rise to fame in her family band and her tragic death, at 23, when she was shot to death by the head of her fan club after a dispute. Selena’s life, music and the film became touchstones in Latin American culture, and her infectious appeal crossed over to audiences of all kinds.
Olmos, who played Abraham, the father and manager of the band, said the movie stands out as a universal family story that happens to be about Mexican Americans along the Texas-Mexico border.
“It will stand the test of time,” Olmos told the Library. “(It’s) a masterpiece because it allows people to learn about themselves by watching other peoples’ culture.”
In the 1970s, Michael Schultz was a young director when he was brought on to direct Cooley High, a touching 1975 comedy about a group of Black friends enjoying their last year of high school in the Cabrini Green neighborhood in Chicago. Affectionate, rowdy, and innocent about teenage life, it stood in contrast to the Blaxploitation movies of the era. This year, Cooley joins the registry as well.
Despite a tight budget and shooting schedule, the movie caught on with audiences and remains a time-capsule portrait of teenagers coming of age in a difficult place. It’s been called a classic of Black cinema. Schultz said he never doubted the film’s potential.
“The one thing I knew about Cooley High was that it was unique, it was exciting,” he said. “It would open up people to a new world.”
California-based director Sylvia Morales was incredulous when she got the call that her 1979 documentary, Chicana, was included on this year’s registry class. “Initially, I didn’t believe it,” she said.
Chicana is a 22-minute collage of artworks, still photographs and documentary footage about the struggles of Chicana women over the long course of history and the work they have put in to gain basic rights and wages. That film, and her subsequent career, grew out of Morales’ youthful desire to see people like her on the silver screen.
“I loved the movies, and so I decided early on, when I was a teenager, that I was going to make some movies and put some Mexicans in it,” she said. “I think it's the struggle that's important, and that's what Chicana is. It's the struggle to be whoever you are."
Three films included on this year’s list directly addressed one of the most pressing issues of the day: racially motivated violence against people of color. The Murder of Fred Hampton from 1971, Who Killed Vincent Chin? from 1987, and Requiem-29 from 1970 told stories of violence against Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans, respectively. These films are particularly important to preserve, said Stewart, who is chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
“We strive to look at the range of films, those that are entertaining and inspiring, but also those films that raise more difficult questions, titles that get us to recognize that films are documents of our complex social and political history and that their preservation is absolutely essential if we're going to look honestly at our past,” Stewart said. Taking the three films together — all made decades ago, but just as relevant now as then — “help us to see just how powerful cinematic representations of these issues can be, because films not only document social problems but they can also be catalysts for change."
The oldest film in this year’s registry class is a recently restored three-minute actuality recording from 1902 showing a Ringling Brothers circus parade in Indianapolis. One reason why the film was selected for preservation is it also shows, by accident, a rare glimpse of a prosperous northern Black community at the turn of the 20th century. African Americans were rarely shown in films of that era and then only in caricature or mocking depictions.
Two more silent films from the early 20th century selected this year also portray Black Americans without the degrading stereotypes common to the era.
The Flying Ace, from 1926, is a straightforward romance set in the daring new world of aviation. It was made by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville, Florida, an important producer of “race films” — movies made specifically for Black audiences. Although owned by Richard Norman, a white man, the studio’s films tended to portray a world in which whites, and thus racism, was absent.
“The Flying Ace is a really special film because it represents Black technical expertise and bravery,” said Stewart. “It has been said that future Tuskegee Airmen were inspired when they saw this film in their youth.”
The fact that it was also so successful with audiences, she said, helps document that there was a “thriving African American movie culture during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. It’s miraculous, considering how few prints of these films were made, that this film survives.”
Hellbound Train, a silent film from 1930, is a staunchly Christian film, made by the evangelical couple of James and Eloyce Gist. Until recently, it was an overlooked milestone in Black cinema and now joins the registry. Its obvious plot — the Gists were amateur filmmakers, using untrained actors — was to scare sinners straight. It was played in churches and fairgrounds to accompany the Gists’ sermons.
It depicts a train with each car dedicated to particular sins — dancing, drinking, adultery — being conducted by Satan himself. The print was painstakingly reassembled from more than 100 reels of 16mm at the Library by filmmaker S. Torriano Berry, preserving this early example of guerilla filmmaking carried out with a missionary zeal.
In 2013, the Library released a report that determined 70 percent of the nation’s silent feature films have been lost forever and only 14 percent exist in their original format.
The films selected for the 2021 National Film Registry, in chronological order are:
Ringling Brothers Parade Film (1902)
The Flying Ace (1926)
Hellbound Train (1930)
Flowers and Trees (1932)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Cooley High (1975)
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)
The Wobblies (1979)
Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)