Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The 2017 National Film Registry: A Study in Black and White

On the day we set aside to commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, I looked back at the 2017 list of films chosen for inclusion on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The list, always announced in the waning days of the year, annually contains the names of 25 films that the U.S. government has pledged to preserve because of their historical, cultural, or aesthetic significance. Predictably the current list contains a blockbuster epic (Titanic), a classic thriller (Die Hard), an innovative aesthetic experiment (Memento), and a sentimental favorite (Field of Dreams). But—at a time when the question of racism has taken on some urgency—I was struck by how many of the selected films grapple with racial and ethnic bias. 

Back in 1947, Gregory Peck and company confronted the prevalence of post-war American anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement. This Elia Kazan-directed film (one that meant a great deal to my own parents) is on the 2017 list, along with several movies exploring Latino barrio life. But—aptly for Martin Luther King Day—I noticed no fewer than four films that give context to our nation’s struggles with the divide between black and white America.  

It was gratifying to be the one who told Karen Sharpe Kramer that her husband Stanley’s greatest hit, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, had made the list. When this film was released in late 1967, a decade after the first baby-steps of the Civil Rights movement, college-age Americans tended to scoff. For them the story of affluent and liberal-minded white parents (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn) who eventually give their consent to their daughter’s union with the world’s most perfect black man (Sidney Poitier) seemed much too corny to be of interest. Still, plenty of people, in and out of the Deep South, were outraged. But the movie’s triumph at the 1968 box office seemed to help move the needle in terms of the general public’s reaction to interracial love. A reviewer in the Tulsa Tribune talked about its impact: “What we get is a 1968 reaction to a social question by a range of people representing the full spectrum of possibilities—from the bigot with a totally closed mind to [the] ultra liberal who sees no question. . . . The film could not have been successfully released nationally five years ago; it will be hopelessly out of date five years hence.” 

Also on the 2017 list is Charles Burnett’s raw 1990 drama of black life, To Sleep with Anger. This much-admired indie has been honored by film buffs, and Burnett (now 73) received one of the Motion Picture Academy’s honorary Oscars last fall for his body of work. But as an African-American director he has never had access to the big projects his talents seem to warrant. A more prominent African-American filmmaker, Spike Lee, has a spot on the list too, for his powerful 4 Little Girls documentary (1997) about the 1963 firebombing of a black Birmingham Church, leading to the deaths of four small children. 

I suspect not many people today associate Walt Disney’s charming Dumbo (1941) with racial politics. And my own favorite memory of Dumbo, aside from its literally uplifting ending, is the genuinely phantasmagoric segment known as  “Pink Elephants on Parade.” But there was a time in the 1960s when, as I understand it, Dumbo couldn’t be publicly shown because the “Jim Crow” characters in the “When I See an Elephant Fly” number were taken as offensive black stereotypes. True, they were voiced by a famous all-black choir, but I can’t see them as anything but lovable.

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