When I saw news that, as of 2013, movie theaters will completely phase out film projectors and rely on digital formats and projection instead, that raised a question in my mind: what is the state of film preservation? Specifically, I wondered about minority-made movies.
Almost every immigrant or non-Anglo-American (i.e., non-white) community who found themselves stereotyped or lampooned or both, in American films eventually made their own film stories. When Hollywood ignored the African-, Chinese-, Native-, or Hispanic-American communities, those folks took stands and put their own stories on film.
The voices, points of view and sensibilities that come, speak from and show lives on America’s cultural margins probably sit on the bottom of the list for preservation. The youngest, millennial generations are used to thinking in digital formats, and no longer of analog ones. With DVDs and other digital media formats most of America forgets that most movies are made from a fragile format: film stock. At least the first 80 years of film, from 1898, were shot on that. How many master copies of movies have been properly preserved to serve our cultural and national memories?
If they – the movies – are outta sight, or mind or both, they might be outta luck; they might be stuck at the back of the line as a last priority.
As the PBS American Masters’ documentary, “Hollywood Chinese,” shows the Chinese-American community can look to Anna May Wong’s movies, from the early 1900s. She was our first Chinese-American star, and she starred in some of the earliest films about Chinese-Americans. If they haven’t yet, will any of her movies, such as “The Daughter of Shanghai” be preserved?
As for black images and representation, before the icon of the 1980s and 90s, Spike Lee, came aboard and rocked the boat of American cinema, Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams were America’s first, gutsiest and most productive black filmmakers. If they haven’t yet been, will Micheaux’s “The Homesteader,” “The Exile,” or “Body and Soul” be preserved?
Well, about one-year-ago, Jan-Christopher Horak, the director of the Film & Television Archive at UCLA, wrote a blog entry about the status of preserving some independent black films. There he acknowledges that “both Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ (1977) and Dash’s ‘Daughters of the Dust’ (1991) were named by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry of American film treasures.”
That’s a beginning. But will a film that’s deemed a treasure be preserved?
Of course and unfortunately, some of those films that were made by and for peoples on America’s margins haven’t been preserved; and the same goes for all of America’s earliest movies; history and preservation were incidental considerations. Afterthoughts. Above all, most people probably agree that most movies serve as mere entertainment, distractions from a day’s work or trouble.
You can assume that those minority-made movies, which of which have been lost, are simply victims of bigotry. But those often poorly made movies were treated as most second-rate or B-movies were. Bigotry wasn’t at the center of the subject. Their prints became damaged, outright mangled or lost. The filmmakers’ goals were to make realistic and constructive images and stories of the communities they knew; neither artistry or history were priorities. Certainly not posterity or preservation.
Hollywood has made it clear or at least implicit to many Americans that accurate and constructive portrayals of its communities of color were not priorities. They were incidental. Given how sparse those are in America’s movie history, how rare, and how important to a whole image of American history, their preservation needs to be considered a priority other than incidental.