“And the winner is...well, the time has come. Kathryn Bigelow! Woo!”
With that genuine yelp of excitement from presenter Barbra Streisand at the 82nd Academy Awards, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to receive an Oscar for directing, for her 2009 film, The Hurt Locker.
It was a historic moment that has yet to be repeated. To this day, only five women have ever been nominated in the prestigious category, and the lack of recognition of female directors by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is now a running joke during each year’s ceremony. It’s a bias that extends into the Best Picture category, which featured eight nominees in 2019, all of them directed by men, an especially dismal statistic in a year that gave us Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life — I could go on, but you get the idea.
But despite their glamour, the Oscars aren’t the final word on a film or even a director’s legacy and impact. That honour goes to the National Film Registry, part of the Library of Congress’ effort to preserve works that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” to American film history. And in 2019, Bigelow and The Hurt Locker are now eligible to join the 750 films currently listed.
The registry was formed in 1988, in the aftermath of a controversy over whether or not to regulate the colourization of black and white films. Every year 25 new films are added, in a process overseen by the National Film Preservation Board, which counts 44 members, 11 of whom are women. (As is Carla Haynden, the Librarian of Congress, who makes up the final list.) Films must be at least 10 years old to be eligible, and submissions are solicited from the general public.
“The National Film Registry is probably the most important signifier of films of importance that we have in America,” Dennis Doros, a board member and co-founder of Milestone Films and president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists,, told Refinery29. “From its very beginning the registry was focused on the complete breadth of films made in America from a home movie to Jurassic Park.”
The importance of the registry’s mission was reflected in the impact of one of its 2018 additions. After Something Good - Negro Kiss, a thirty-second silent short film from 1898 that showed two Black performers (Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown) sharing a tender moment, made the registry this year, it went viral. Someone even updated it to play the heart-wrenching sounds of “Agape,” from Nicholas Britell’s Oscar-nominated If Beale Street Could Talk score.
The registry is far from perfect. Women-directed films currently make up 52 of the total 750 films currently on the list. Only 36 are by filmmakers of colour. (The American Film Institute’s Greatest 100 list, which claims to feature the greatest hundred films of all time, is perhaps the registry’s greatest rival. The last version, updated in 2007, features no films by women directors at all.)
Part of that is due to the need for films to be at least a decade old. When the registry was first created, only films made before 1979 could be considered. This coming year will include those made in 2009 — hence the chance for The Hurt Locker to join the ranks. And the number of female directors included could increase as more recent, and visible, Hollywood contributions become eligible.
“It's a challenging problem because for directors, there were [very few] women working in Hollywood [from] basically 1920 to 1980, at least in terms of [mainstream] films,” Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board and National Film Registry, told Refinery29 in a phone interview. “Ironically, back in the nineteen teens, probably the most famous director of that decade, [Lois Weber] was a woman. So, lot of the films directed by women which are presently on the registry came from fields like documentary, independent cinema, and home movies.”
Over the years, filmmakers like Barbara Loden (Wanda), Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization), Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning), and Shirley Clarke (Portrait of Jason) have had films selected for the registry, alongside the home movies of Mexican-American resident Josefina Barrera Fuentes, who documented the life of her family in the 1920s, or the medical training film co-directed by Naomi Feil from the late 1960s.
“We want the public to know that there are all of these other non-Hollywood categories of film directed by women, people of colour, men and women on the street, because those are just as important to the American film heritage as these very famous Hollywood films,” Leggett said.
But Caroline Frick, a board member and assistant professor of Radio-TV-Film at The University of Texas at Austin and founder of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, thinks we should also be challenging ourselves to think even bigger.
“Why are we still privileging the role of the director over every other role?” she said in an interview with Refinery29. “There is a huge role, and a huge presence of women within the National Film Registry, but we need to be thinking of costume designers, makeup artists, and stars. If we expand, this list is pretty robust. We could be talking about Edith Head a lot more, or Doris Day as an incredible feminist icon. We could be challenging our traditional stereotypes and assumptions about what it means to be an influencer within motion picture industries.”
Still, there is one name she’d love to see recognized in the near future. “If we could have every Amy Heckerling film on the registry, I would die at peace. Every year I stand up and scream about Clueless.”
In 2018, two films by women of colour made the cut: Kasi Lemons’ Eve’s Bayou (1997), and Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy Headed People, a 1984 animated film about the politics of Black hair by Ayoka Chenzira, one of the first Black women animators.
Doros points out that even when movies by women do make the list, they’re often not as easily recognizable to the public as big-name studio films directed by men. “Eve’s Bayou did not make the press as much as Jurassic Park,” he pointed out about last year’s announcements.
Hair Piece was one of his submissions. “I saw Hair Piece when it screened in Athens, Ohio in the early 1980s,” he said. “I found it back then to be this incredible, funny, insightful, very talent-filled film, done by an independent director. And as I’ve seen her work over the years, I saw how her career blossomed over that, and how she’s now forgotten, in some ways. I wanted to choose a film that meant something to me that was different from films that had previously been on the list.”
Still, though the board was receptive, and understands the importance of diversity, it has its limitations. The hold-up is in part due to its traditional makeup, which requires representatives from a number of industry and critics organizations, which are overwhelmingly male and white.
But there are also other factors to consider in the quest for diversity. “What generations do we have represented, and what types of knowledge and expertise?” Frick said, adding that it's also important that members be “from geographically disparate areas."
"There have been independent women filmmakers throughout the 20th century, but they’re not just from New York and L.A.”
A recent New York Times story about the registry highlighted Jacqueline Stewart, a board member and professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, who is heading up a diversity initiative to ensure that the films selected aren’t just those that reflect one group’s American experience. Leggett also noted that efforts were being made to be more inclusive when terms come up in 2020.
The thing is, we don’t even have to wait for the board to get more diverse to make a difference. Perhaps the most significant thing about the registry is that the initial submissions are made by the public. An online form is available on the registry’s website, and individuals can submit up to 50 titles every year. According to Leggett film buffs submitted approximately 6,500 titles in 2018, which were reviewed by the board, who also bring in their own submissions. A short-list is then presented to Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, who makes the final decisions.
“The most important thing to get films on the list is public participation,” Doros said. “The Library of Congress is a public entity and very oriented towards serving the public, especially under Carla Hayden. They listen to the public even more closely than they have in the past. And if people want more women on the list, they need to participate.”
That’s why the registry is so important. Not only is it the most prestigious official record of American contributions to film, but we, the people, actually have the power to mold it to reflect the diversity and inclusion we want to see. These are the films that will actually go down in history, preserved in an earthquake-proof vault in Culpeper, Virginia.
And so, as part of Women’s History Month, I challenge you all to go nominate a woman-directed film to this list. How about Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut? Or Thirteen, Catherine Hardwicke’s 2003 classic coming-of-age film starring Evan Rachel Wood? Or Twilight? Killing Time (Fronza Woods, 1979) Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)? Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992)? I Like It Like That (Darnell Martin, 1994)? Monster (Patti Jenkins, 1993)? Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)? Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)? Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985)? Love and Basketball (Gina Prince-Blythwood, 2000)?
Let’s not fall into the Oscars trap. The deadline for new nominations is September 15, 2019. I nominated the 2009 cult classic Jennifer’s Body, directed by Karyn Kusama. Hell is a teenage girl — future generations be warned