The 2019 edition of the list, which gives films of cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance a permanent home in the Library of Congress, ranges from Lee’s landmark She’s Gotta Have It to a 1903 reel filmed at Ellis Island—and virtually everything in between.
For the fourth time, Spike Lee has had a film inducted into the National Film Registry, earning a permanent place in the Library of Congress for making a film that is “historically, culturally, or aesthetically significant.” But when the call came that 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It would join Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 4 Little Girls in the registry, “it comes out of nowhere,” Lee told Vanity Fair. “I’m honored.”
She’s Gotta Have It joins 24 titles among this year’s inductees (see the full list here), bringing the registry to 775 films. This year’s roster is the most diverse yet, with several films directed by women and several more about them. Claudia Weill’s 1978 independent film, Girlfriends, is both. Shot piecemeal for $130,000 as cash and grant money came in, the film is now included “in the cultural legacy of this country,” Weill said in a phone interview. “You’re just trying to tell your story when you’re starting out and trying to figure out your path as an artist.”
The National Film Registry was born out of the National Film Preservation Act, which passed in 1988 mostly in response to philistines looking to get more bang out of their archival buck by colorizing black-and-white films. Ted Turner, who owned the MGM film library, became the public face of the controversy, especially when he jokingly(?) threatened to colorize Casablanca (“They won’t bother with the original,” he proclaimed in a 1986 CNN interview).
But in addition to recognizing a film’s importance, the registry is mostly about raising public awareness about the need for film preservation, which can be prohibitively expensive. High-profile titles that have been inducted into the registry, including this year’s inductees Old Yeller and Sleeping Beauty, are generally preserved by their studios. But the registry provides an incentive to protect much smaller works like Girlfriends or a 1903 reel called Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island.
American film preservation was not a high priority at the time the registry was created, noted Stephen Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board. “In the early 1980s, studios really had no incentive to preserve their titles,” he said. “Once a film was done with its theatrical release, there wasn’t a large market. Starting in the early ’80s, you had cable and home video, which meant studios had to go back to their libraries and preserve their films to have a good product.”
But it’s not just older black-and-white films that need help. In the early 1980s, Martin Scorsese went public about how color films from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were starting to fade. “And that still left out the massive problems with independent films and noncommercial films,” Leggett said, “but at least studios started having more of a financial incentive to preserve their titles.”
All this was a revelation to actor Alfre Woodard, one of the 44 members of the National Film Preservation Board who advise the librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. “We grew up with the notion that once it’s on celluloid, it lasts forever,” she said. “Then they talked about opening the film canisters and it’s just dust. Even more alarming was some of the films that had been in the can only 10 years were decomposing. Talk about burning your bridge. So the race is on to preserve as much as possible. Then, of course, it’s like the lifeboat on the Titanic. Who do we put on that lifeboat?”