The latest list of 25 movies named to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress includes plenty of recognizable names from the multiplex – “Saving Private Ryan,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Big Lebowski” among them. But it also has at least one film that very few people know, a short 1965 documentary called “Felicia.”
The title subject is Felicia Bragg, a remarkably poised African-American teenager from Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. At the time “Felicia” was made, Watts was not yet a synonym for racial unrest. Around the time the film was being released, however, an altercation over a traffic stop involving white police officers and a black motorist exploded into an uprising that left 34 dead, more than a thousand injured and much of Watts in smoking ruins.
“Felicia” shows poverty and undercurrents of racial tension in stark monochromatic tones, which makes it a fascinating time capsule of pre-rebellion Watts. And without the efforts of two people from Raleigh, underground cinema connoisseur Skip Elsheimer and N.C. State film professor Marsha Gordon, “Felicia” would probably be decaying in a dump instead of enshrined at the Library of Congress.
“This is really the ultimate for me,” said Elsheimer. “I’m the guy who collects wacky films and it’s cool to save something that was destined for the landfill. But it’s even cooler to find something important enough for other people to declare that it’s our culture. It’s phenomenal, just made my year.”
A one-in-25,000 find
Under the name A/V Geeks, Elsheimer has been collecting obscure films like “Felicia” since the early 1990s. Along with cataloging and digitizing them for online viewing, Elsheimer also puts on regular public presentations in nightclubs and museums, showing everything from nurse-training films to 1950s-vintage infomercials aimed at “The Modern Housewife.”
“I delight in showing things you’d never, ever see anywhere else,” Elsheimer said.
Elseheimer’s collection is among the largest in the country and numbers about 25,000 films, most of them stored in his house near Oakwood Cemetery east of downtown Raleigh. “Felicia” was originally distributed through a lending library run by the Jewish service organization B’Nai Brith (which is why that logo appears at the beginning of the film). A copy eventually wound up in a cache of educational films Elsheimer acquired from a school district in Buffalo, N.Y., before they were thrown out.
After the acquisition, Elsheimer cataloged “Felicia” and stored it away. But he didn’t actually watch it until hearing from Gordon, who was working on a scholarly article on films about young African-Americans. She asked what Elsheimer had on the subject, he did a search and “Felicia” came up.
“I haven’t seen every film I have because there are far too many of them,” Elsheimer said. “That’s why I like working with Marsha. She’ll ask about things, and it’s an excuse to pull stuff out. It forces me to find things, and this was one I’d never seen before.”
Once they saw “Felicia,” Elsheimer and Gordon were both struck at the contrast between the subject’s expressive narration and the visual images of poverty in Watts. The film shows young children playing in the shadow of stacks of wrecked automobiles in a junkyard. Accompanying that is Felicia Bragg’s matter-of-fact description of her life, surroundings and interactions with white students elsewhere.
“I guess the city’s a pretty good place to live in – for most people,” she says at one point. “Me, I live in another part of the city.”
Intrigued, they both wondered about Felicia as well as the people behind the camera. Gordon and a colleague from UCLA managed to find the three white UCLA film students who had made “Felicia” a half-century earlier. And they also found Felicia Bragg herself, from an early-1990s newspaper story about the Rodney King riots in which she happened to be quoted.
“The filmmakers were flabbergasted that anyone remembered this 12-minute film they’d made as college students,” Gordon said. “So was Felicia. After I tracked down her address, we started a correspondence and eventually met. She’d never actually seen it before we showed it to her at a coffee shop in Echo Park. That was something.”
Bragg was among the first students of color from Watts to go to college, studying history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and going on to a long career in politics and activism. Gordon said Bragg worked on political campaigns for Tom Bradley (who was mayor of Los Angeles at the time of the 1992 Rodney King riots) and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. She has also done fundraising for nonprofits.
“Felicia today is an older version of what you see in the film, grown-up and articulate and very aware of political and social situations about race and class and gender,” Gordon said. “This movie isn’t just important but also timely and relevant, especially in light of recent happenings in Ferguson and elsewhere.”
Preserving a time capsule
Since “Felicia” was in the public domain, Elsheimer put the film online at the Internet Archive for everyone to see. Gordon and her UCLA colleague, Allyson Nadia Field, also co-wrote a scholarly article about the film titled “The Other Side of the Tracks: Nontheatrical Film History, Pre-Rebellion Watts, and ‘Felicia,’ ” which will be published later this year in Cinema Journal.
Gordon has shown “Felicia” in public a number of times and would like to show it at Lincoln High School, Bragg’s school in Watts. Until then, she and Field are both showing the film to the classes they’re teaching this semester at N.C. State and UCLA.
Field and Gordon also nominated “Felicia” for the National Film Registry, which has designated 25 films per year for preservation since 1988. In December, word came down that it was one of this year’s selections.
“Ultimately, this designation is us saying a film is important in American film as well as American culture, and worthy of preservation,” said Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board. “‘Felicia’ is a great little film and quite a time capsule, a very evocative look at a young woman’s perspective growing up at that time in Watts.”
As Gordon noted, it took an unlikely chain of events for “Felicia” to be in Elsheimer’s collection just as she was researching that subject. The fact that she was able to find the filmmakers as well as the subject was unlikelier still.
“This is different from the usual story of somebody finding rare home-movie footage of Marilyn Monroe or something,” said Elsheimer.
“The value in this came from curating, finding and talking to the people involved – the work Marsha and Ally did to make it important. It’s valuable to me, but not the sort where you make a bunch of money. It’s exciting because I feel like I’ve done my job.”