AFI Marks a Momentous Milestone — and Gives D.C. a Political Respite

Morgan Freeman
Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

WASHINGTON — Morgan Freeman offered a toast to the lawmakers, celebrities, and media stars gathered at the Great Hall of the Library of Congress on Wednesday for the American Film Institute’s 50th anniversary.

“Tonight is not about politics. Tonight is about art,” he said, which, august as it sounded, actually was a bit refreshing to a D.C. crowd accustomed to the relentless onslaught of news in the Trump era.

The institute, and underwriter AT&T, probably couldn’t have found a loftier venue for the event, and Freeman, who has played presidents and even God, matched the moment. (He also had some fun; as he exited, he pretended to get zapped in the security zone.)

Among those at the event were Bradley Cooper, Christopher Nolan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Alan Greenspan, and Andrea Mitchell, and filmmakers Lesli Linka Glatter, Lori McCreary, Jon Avnet, and Grace Guggenheim. Howard Stringer, chairman of the AFI board of trustees, and Jean Picker Firstenberg, the AFI president emeritus, were also there.

Bob Gazzale, the president and CEO of the AFI, said marking the anniversary in Washington was important because “this is a place where the nation’s artists can stand together with the nation’s leaders.”

“That is an important conversation to have with those two groups,” he said. He then showed movie clips of a diverse array of iconic moments, instantly recognizable to most film audiences.

As he signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced the creation of the AFI at a Rose Garden ceremony.

George Stevens Jr., the founding director of the AFI, said “they knew what to do about music and dance and theater, but they didn’t know what to do about film. As we used to say, they couldn’t give a grant to Warner Bros. So we came up with this idea of an American Film Institute.”

He recalled Gregory Peck, the first chairman, coming to his Georgetown garden on a springtime Sunday afternoon in 1967 to write the press release to announce the formation.

The AFI launched its conservatory in 1969, with Terrence Malick, Caleb Deschanel, and Paul Schrader in the first class.

But the “urgent challenge,” Stevens recalled, was saving motion pictures, as less than 10% were being preserved.

Stevens recalled establishing a partnership with the Library of Congress, with the AFI coordinating the search for missing films, and the Library of Congress transferring threatened movies from nitrate stock, which decayed into a fine brown powder, to new film stock.

“The battle cry was ‘nitrate won’t wait,’ and a worldwide search and rescue operation began,” he said.

In total, there are now 37,000 motion pictures in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress preservation and vault facility in Culpepper, Va. Among the most significant treasures: “Richard III,” a 1912 movie found in the basement of a film projectionist in 1996 and donated to the AFI. As the oldest surviving feature film, Gazzale called it a “classic example of how we never give up the search.”

Peck’s first movie role was playing Soviet guerrilla fighter Vladimir in the movie “Days of Glory,” and as passionate as he was about saving film heritage, “I remember Mr. Peck., somewhat sheepishly, hinting to the archivists that too much time should not be devoted to preserving ‘Days of Glory,'” Stevens said to laughs.

The AFI started with funding from studios, the Ford Foundation, and the NEA, the latter of which is the chief federal agency for arts funding.

Stevens noted that the AFI now “sustains itself without government funding.”

In this brief respite from budgetary battles, that remark drew a healthy dose of audience applause.