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That Time the U.S. Government Won an Oscar

Today, the award is kept on permanent display in the National Archives

The Little Rock Nine escorted by soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock Central High. (U.S. Army)
smithsonian.com

Did you know the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once bestowed an Oscar to...the United States government? It’s true. Back in 1964, the head of the United States Information Agency George Stevens, Jr., commissioned his team to produce the film Nine from Little Rock, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1965. 

The film profiles the Little Rock Nine, the brave African-American students who made history when they integrated Little Rock Central High in Arkansas in 1957. With narration by Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine students who desegregated Little Rock, the documentary highlights the accomplishments of the students who had gone on to pursue college degrees in fields like journalism, sociology, and education.

Criss Kovac, the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab, explains in a blog post for Unwritten Record, that according to an 1964 USIA transmittal memo, the purpose of the film was to demonstrate “America’s commitment to freedom of the individual and justice under law,” and to document “the role of the Federal government in upholding the law protecting minorities.”

In other words, it was part of a larger USIA propaganda effort to paint the U.S. as a bastion of freedom and racial harmony in the heat of the Cold War, writes Michael Krenn in his book, “Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-69.”

Nine from Little Rock​ was one of many pieces of propaganda put out by the agency. The USIA filmstrip Toward Equal Opportunity, for example, was shown in Ghana to promote the United States and push back against communist activities. These efforts had some success—as Prologue Magazine notes, “USIA personnel observed that Ghanaians who viewed [Toward Equal Opportunity] looked favorably upon the progress that black Americans seemed to be making.”

But Nine from Little Rock’s Oscar win was arguably the agency’s most high-profile endeavor. The recognition by the Academy demonstrated its power, and 17 translated versions of the film would go on to be screened for audiences in nearly 100 nations.

Despite its success, Nine from Little Rock also served as a turning point in the USIA’s foreign policy efforts. As Krenn writes, following the passage of the 1964-1965 Civil Rights legislation, government officials began to devote less resources to creating propaganda for civil rights and race on an international level. As the racial tensions of the ’60s reached a boiling point in the years following the film, officials also found it harder to defend the country’s record on race.

In 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of Nine from Little Rock’s Oscar win, the National Archives completed a full digital restoration of the film and had the original copy photochemically preserved. The special occasion was also marked with a screening of the film followed by a program that featured civil rights leader John Lewis, Little Rock Nine members Carlotta Walls and Ernest Green, along with Stevens.

Today, if you’re ever in Washington, D.C. you can see the film’s Oscar for yourself—it is kept on permanent display in the National Archives.

About Aaron Sidder

Aaron Sidder is an ecologist and a freelance science writer based in Denver, CO. He is a former AAAS Mass Media Fellow whose work has appeared National Geographic and Eos.

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