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'Return of the Jedi,' 'Selena' and 'Sounder' added to National Film Registry

Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Company
An original 1983 poster for Return of the Jedi. Fans lobbied to see the final film in the first Star Wars trilogy included in this year's registry.

Every year, the Library of Congress adds 25 new movies to the National Film Registry. It's a way to draw attention to the Library's efforts to protect and archive American film history.

As usual, a few big blockbusters have made the cut. Thanks in part to online lobbying by fans, Star Wars Episode VI—Return of the Jedi, from 1983, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, from 2001, will be preserved for posterity.

"It is a great honor to have The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring selected this year by the National Film Registry," the filmmaking team of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens said in a statement. "We are proud to be part of an archive that celebrates and preserves the art of visual storytelling, for generations to come."

Ringling Bros Parade Film / Courtesy: Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
Courtesy: Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
This still from a film showing the Ringling Bros circus parading through a prosperous Black neighborhood in Indianapolis, is a rare cinematic glimpse of Black people in film without racist portrayals.

Since the National Film Registry was started in 1988, it's enshrined more than 800 titles intended to reflect the vast scope of American moviemaking. This year, the oldest addition this year dates to 1902. The three-minute clip, of a Ringling Bros circus parading through a prosperous Black neighborhood in Indianapolis, is a rare cinematic glimpse of a real African-American community from this era. As the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden notes, "African Americans were rarely shown in films of that era and then only in caricature or mocking depictions."

But this year's list includes two other early Black films that avoid degrading stereotypes. The Flying Ace, from 1926, was made by a Black film studio in Florida. It's an aviation romance now thought to have helped inspire the Tuskegee Airmen and, was part of a "thriving African American movie culture during the 1920s, '30s and '40s," adds historian Jacqueline Stewart, chair of the National Film Preservation Board. "It's miraculous, considering how few prints of these films were made, that this film survives."

Another miraculous survivor is a devoutly evangelical Christian film called Hellbound Train, from 1930. Displayed in fairgrounds and churches, it follows a train, conducted by Satan himself, with each car devoted to a sin, such as gambling and adultery. Only recently was Hellbound Train recognized and restored as a milestone of Black cinema.

Other Black cinema milestones added this year include Sounder, featuring indelible performances by Cecily Tyson and Paul Winfield and scored by Taj Mahal, the lesbian indie film The Watermelon Woman from 1996 and the coming-of-age classic Cooley High, from 1975.

One relatively recent classic is the 1997 film Selena, which gave us Jennifer Lopez in her first major role as Tejana megastar Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. "It will stand the test of time," said Edward James Olmos, who played her father. "(It's) a masterpiece because it allows people to learn about themselves by watching other peoples' culture."

/ Warner Bros
Warner Bros
Jennifer Lopez starred as the slain Tejana musician Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the 1997 biopic, newly added to the National Film Registry.

Accurately described as "eclectic" by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, here is this year's list of films selected for the 2021 National Film Registry, in chronological order:

1. Ringling Brothers Parade Film (1902)
2. Jubilo (1919)
3. The Flying Ace (1926)
4. Hellbound Train (1930)
5. Flowers and Trees (1932)
6. Strangers on a Train (1951)
7. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
8. Evergreen (1965)
9. Requiem-29 (1970)
10. The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)
11. Pink Flamingos (1972)
12. Sounder (1972)
13. The Long Goodbye (1973)
14. Cooley High (1975)
15. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)
16. Chicana (1979)
17. The Wobblies (1979)
18. Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983)
19. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
20. Stop Making Sense (1984)
21. Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)
22. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
23. Selena (1997)
24. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
25. WALL-E (2008)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.