The National Film Registry’s 2021 class is the most diverse in the program’s 33-year history, including blockbusters such as “Return of the Jedi,” “Selena” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” but also the ’70s midnight-movie favorite “Pink Flamingos” and a 1926 film featuring Black pilots in the daring new world of aviation, “The Flying Ace.”
The 2021 selections, announced today, include movies dating back nearly 120 years and represent the work of Hollywood studios, independent filmmakers, documentarians, women directors, filmmakers of color, students and the silent era. Most pointedly, the inductees also include a trio of documentaries that addressed murderous violence against Blacks, Asians and Latinos, respectively, in “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” Who Killed Vincent Chin?” and “Requiem-29.”
“The National Film Registry will preserve our cinematic heritage, and we are proud to add 25 more films this year,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “The Library of Congress will work with our partners in the film community to ensure these films are preserved for generations to come.”
Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” series, was one of a dozen key players in this year’s class of films to join the Library for interviews about their work. He emphasized that at the time “Star Wars” made its 1977 debut, it was largely understood to be for children.
“It had a princess, it had a pirate, it had a wizard, a farm boy, a big bad boogie-man,” he said of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, of which “Return of the Jedi” was the third installment. “It was clearly a fairy tale, but just put in the context of, you know, a Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers-type space opera, serial play.”
One of the reasons the films have gone on to make such a lasting cultural impact, he said, is because they were so optimistic during an period of national disillusionment.
“It was an era of great cynicism in film,” he said. “Post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, action films usually had revenge and anti-heroes (as) the order of the day … so for George (Lucas, the films’ creator) to make something like this, he almost had to set it in a galaxy far, far away and put it forward as a fantasy, because you couldn’t tell a contemporary story with that sense of optimism. It just seemed too corny.”
This year’s selections bring the number of films in the registry to 825, representing a miniscule portion of the 1.7 million films in the Library’s collections. The list is chosen by the National Film Preservation Board and the Librarian of Congress, selecting films that were influential and important to the history of film and American society. The films must be at least 10 years old to be considered. The public can nominate films, but the final selections are not a popularity contest and they are not necessarily an endorsement of the film itself.
Baltimore’s iconic, often cheerfully outrageous director John Waters made his first appearance on the list this year with 1972’s “Pink Flamingos,” which has the subtitle, “An Exercise in Bad Taste.” Making an underground icon out of Divine, its drag queen star, the film played for years on the midnight movie circuit. Waters’ father loaned him the money to make the film but refused to see it.
“The National Film Registry preserves films that are, well, remembered, loved, hated or whatever caused people to continue to talk about them for a long time,” he said in an interview with the Library, “and I am thrilled to be on the list.”
The list this year was typically eclectic. The Pixar love story between two robots, “WALL-E,” made the cut, as did the Talking Heads, with their 1983 concert film “Stop Making Sense.” “Sounder,” a 1972 film about a Black family persevering through 1930s Louisiana poverty and racism, was admitted, thus including actress Cicely Tyson’s iconic run across a field to meet her husband returning home.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” from 1951 was selected, joining a host of his other films on the list. The 1963 horror/thriller, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” that featured Hollywood icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, was listed, as was the ’80s campy teen horror romp, “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Robert Altman’s 1973 “The Long Goodbye” saw iconic detective Philip Marlowe in a hippie-filled Los Angeles, stumbling through a murder mystery. Elliot Gould’s mumbling portrayal of the detective was worlds apart from Humphrey Bogart’s classic turn as Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” a generation earlier, but found a spot in the registry for its unconventional, genre-bending take on the hard-boiled private eye motif.
“Selena,” the 1997 biographical film of Tejana star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, starred Jennifer Lopez in her first major movie role. Directed by Gregory Nava, it told the story of the young singer’s rise to fame 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.
Edward James Olmos, who played Abraham, the father and manager of the family 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.”
Two more silent films from the early 20th century portray Black Americans without the degrading stereotypes common to the era. “The Flying Ace,” from 1926, is a straightforward romance. 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 Jacqueline Stewart, chair of the NFPB and chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. “It has been said that future Tuskegee Airmen were inspired when they saw this film in their youth.”
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will host a television special Friday, Dec. 17, starting at 8 p.m. ET to screen a selection of motion pictures named to the registry this year. Stewart will host Hayden in discussing the films. Also, some titles from the NFR are freely available online in the National Screening Room. You can Follow the conversation about the 2021 National Film Registry on Twitter and Instagram at @librarycongress and #NatFilmRegistry.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox