The Significance of “Felicia” and Preserving Nontheatrical Film

The School of Visual Art and Design, along with University Libraries, invited North Carolina State University Professor Dr. Marsha Gordon to USC on September 17 and 18. Below, Dr. Gordon describes her visit, and discusses the film Felicia and the importance of preserving nontheatrical films.


Still image of Columbia Police Lieutenant Robert Wilbur, from WIS-TV News outtakes.

I was invited to come down to University of South Carolina to give two talks. The first was to Professor Laura Kissel’s FILM 110 Media Culture class, an introductory course for Media Arts students. In that class I discussed the ways that the subject of race was virtually ignored in educational filmmaking prior to the 1960s, as well as the ways that the mainstream media dealt with the representation of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the wake of the rebellions that took place there in the summer of 1965. This discussion included a local Columbia, SC angle with a screening of a short clip of police Lieutenant Robert Wilbur discussing the subject of rioting; the clip was culled from the WIS-TV News collection at MIRC.


Still image from the film “Felicia.”

The main event was showing the film Felicia (Dirs. Alan Gorg, Bob Dickson, & Trevor Greenwood), a film that was just named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. I discovered this film in Skip Elsheimer’s A/V Geeks Educational Film Archive (@AVGeeks). Skip has saved over 25,000 16mm educational films and works diligently to share them with the world. He also digitized a copy of Felicia and has posted it at the Internet Archive, so you can watch the film we looked at here.

The film, which was shot prior to the events of August 1965, is about an extremely articulate young woman of color growing up in Watts. Felicia talks about her family life, school, and future in this short, student-made documentary. In Professor Kissel’s class we discussed how this film gave a different picture of Watts than that of the dominant media, and how Felicia’s own voice is used to structure the film, offering important insights into the circumstances that shaped her life and future.


Dr. Gordon presenting “The Other Side of the Tracks: Nontheatrical Film, Race, and the Case of Felicia (1965).”

The day after my classroom visit I gave a more in depth lecture on the film in the Hollings Library. One of the main points of my talk was that scholars and archivists can collaborate to make a real contribution to the understanding of film history. This is really the story of how three student filmmakers cared enough about a social issue (class and race-based inequity) to make a documentary about it; how an archivist cared enough about a forgotten fifty year old film to save it and provide access to it; how film scholars were fortunate enough to find it and have the opportunity to conduct research about it; how this short but insightful film has relevance now, especially in the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, or Charleston, SC.

Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of University of Chicago Film Studies and I have, in addition to successfully nominating the film to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, conducted extensive research resulting in an article on the film that will be published in Cinema Journal in the early spring of 2016. And we were so inspired by the richness of Felicia that we are now collaborating on a collection of original essays themed to the subject of race and nontheatrical film.

Dr. Marsha Gordon
Associate Professor, Film Studies
North Carolina State University
Twitter: @MarshaGGordon

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