In one of the lightest years for documentary additions, five nonfiction films have been named to the National Film Registry. The Library of Congress selects 25 American titles for preservation annually, labeling the works as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Sometimes with the nonfiction selections, it’s a package deal of home movies or travelogues so technically the number can be higher. But for 2018, they’ve really only chosen two documentaries plus some historical film records, a staged display of affection, and an animated satire that I’m arguably stretching to include among these highlights.
Below are the five nonfiction entries, their National Film Registry catalog descriptions, and where to see each.
Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency (1908)
Watch it: At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (and on their website when the videos are working).
The original nitrate footage that comprises the 1908 ‘Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency’ was discovered in a Montana antique store in 1982 and subsequently donated to the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution. It is the only known surviving film footage from the 1908 Rodman Wanamaker-sponsored expedition to record American Indian life in the west, filmed and produced both for an educational screening at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia and to document what Wanamaker and photographer Joseph K. Dixon considered a ‘vanishing race.’ Dixon and his son Roland shot motion picture film as well as thousands of photographs (most of the photographs are archived at Indiana University). This film captures life on Crow Agency, Crow Fair and a recreation of the Battle of Little Big Horn featuring four of Custer’s Crow scouts. Films from later Wanamaker expeditions are archived at the National Archives and the American Museum of Natural History. The original film was photochemically preserved at Cinema Arts in 1983.
Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984)
Watch it: For purchase as part of the collection Black Indie Classics Vol. 1 via filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira’s website.
‘Hair Piece’ is an insightful and funny short animated film examining the problems that African-American women have with their hair. Generally considered the first black woman animator, director Ayoka Chenzira was a key figure in the development of African-American filmmakers in the 1980s through her own films and work to expand opportunities for others. Writing in the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin lauded this eccentric yet jubilant film. She notes the narrator “tells of everything from the difficulty of keeping a wig on straight to the way in which Vaseline could make a woman’s hair sound like the man in ‘The Fly’ saying ‘Help me!’”
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Director Peter Davis describes his Academy Award-winning documentary ‘Hearts and Minds’ (1974) as “an attempt to examine why we went to Vietnam, what we did there and what the experience did to us.” Compared by critics at the time to Marcel Ophuls’ acclaimed documentary ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ (1971), ‘Hearts and Minds,’ similarly addressed the wartime effects of national myths and prejudices by juxtaposing interviews of government officials, soldiers, peasants and parents, cinéma vérité scenes shot on the home front and in South Vietnam, clips from ideological Cold War movies, and horrific archival footage. Author Frances FitzGerald praised the documentary as “the most moving film I’ve ever seen on Vietnam, because, for the first time, the camera lingers on the faces of Vietnamese and one hears their voices.” Author David Halberstam said it “brilliantly catches … the hidden, unconscious racism of the war.” Others from both ends of the political spectrum chided it as manipulative propaganda that oversimplified complexities.
Monterey Pop (1968)
Watch it: Available from the Criterion Collection.
This seminal music-festival film captures the culture of the time and performances from iconic musical talent. ‘Monterey Pop’ also established the template for multi-camera documentary productions of this kind, predating both ‘Woodstock’ and ‘Gimme Shelter.’ In addition to director D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and others provided the superb camerawork. Performers include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Hugh Masekela, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, and Ravi Shankar. As he recalled in a 2006 Washington Post article, Pennebaker decided to shoot and record the film using five portable 16mm cameras equipped with synchronized sound recording devices, while producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) sagely had the whole concert filmed and recorded, and further enhanced the sound by hiring Wally Heider and his state-of-the-art mobile recording studio.
Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898)
Watch it: Below
According to scholars and archivists, this recently discovered 29-second film may represent the earliest example of African-American intimacy on-screen. American cinema was a few years old by 1898 and distributors struggled to entice audiences to this new medium. Among their gambits to find acceptable “risqué” fare, the era had a brief run of “kissing” films. Most famous is the 1896 Edison film ‘The Kiss,’ which spawned a rash of mostly inferior imitators. However, in ‘Something Good,’ the chemistry between vaudeville actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown was palpable. Also noteworthy is this film’s status as the earliest known surviving Selig Polyscope Company film. The Selig Company had a good run as a major American film producer from its founding in 1896 until its ending around 1918. “Something Good” exists in a 19th-century nitrate print from the University of Southern California Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive. USC Archivist Dino Everett and Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of the University of Chicago discovered and brought this important film to the attention of scholars and the public. Field notes, “What makes this film so remarkable is the non-caricatured representation and naturalistic performance of the couple. As they playfully and repeatedly kiss, in a seemingly improvised performance, Suttle and Brown constitute a significant counter to the racist portrayal of African Americans otherwise seen in the cinema of its time. This film stands as a moving and powerful image of genuine affection, and is a landmark of early film history.”