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L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema

Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep screens on November 5

A priceless cinematic time capsule of the African-American experience in post-Watts Los Angeles; a kaleidoscope of the multiple mindsets of a community in profound flux; a sustained rebuke and a consciously developed alternative to the plantation economics and racist narratives of the then-current "blaxploitation" boom; exemplary first steps along a filmmaking road finally not taken — (but oh, the possibilities glimpsed herein!): "L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema" is all of these and more. This collection of the highlights of the legendary but only partially understood African-American film explosion at UCLA in the '70s and early '80s is a priceless work of excavation and restoration, and as an L.A.-specific filmic event it's unlikely to be surpassed in the near future.

Until now, our understanding of the L.A. Rebellion school has been frustrated by simple lack of availability — many of these works were never released — and by the absence of a comprehensive history/filmography of the movement. Aficionados often waited years for screenings or samizdat copies on videotape or DVD.

Slowly, however, word has leaked out. Thom Andersen ended his city-symphony Los Angeles Plays Itself with an astoundingly beautiful and melancholy traveling shot — filmed by Charles Burnett for Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts — around the demolished husk of Watts' gigantic Firestone Tire works, formerly one of the area's largest employers. Andersen also selected mouthwatering extracts from Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1979) and Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1981) as definitive examples of a cinema of the real and actual Los Angeles.

A couple years later — around the time Sheep got its belated national release, to rapturous acclaim — we were given the hitherto definitive account of the movement, via rich, thoughtful analyses of Sheep and Passing Through, in David E. James' momentous and indispensable The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles. Only now, thanks to this series, can we address the entire movement.

Immersion in this body of work (often presented here in restored versions) is a Proustian experience for Angelenos and cultural historians alike, bringing back to life a cultural, social, artistic and political framework now lost to memory. The L.A. Rebellion unfolded against the backdrop of the recent Watts Uprising and the profound sociocultural reassessments it provoked, and amidst growing dissension among black political groupings, from the Panthers to Ron Karenga's US movement (who had an infamous shoot-out on the UCLA campus in 1969). Deep in the background of the movies one discerns the distant rumblings of the Attica prison rebellion (the other Woodstock), the growth of Third World liberation movements to which many of these filmmakers felt themselves allied, the paranoia induced by the FBI's CoInTelPro assault on black political organizations, and the ongoing cultural and musical explosions within America's creative communities of color.

Out of this ferment grew UCLA's hugely influential Ethno-Communications Program, partly in response to demands made by Burnett and other minority film students in 1968. What it offered was a gathering place for like minds, direct access to the means of production at a very cheap rate (given the relatively low cost of the UC system to residents), as well as a communal pool of camera operators, editors, actors and musicians eager to work on as many movies as possible. Most importantly, the program offered time to linger on projects — often time enough to nourish feature-length work. Above all, UCLA became a refuge from — a zone inoculated against — the commercial imperative. With weekly Third World Cinema screenings leavening the conventional film-school diet, there were myriad examples and inspirations to draw upon or to react against.

Burnett and a core of his collaborators took inspiration from postwar realist filmmaking — Italian neorealism in particular but also Satyajit Ray and early nouvelle vague — and applied that method to Watts, which in the mid- to late '70s looked, on the evidence seen throughout L.A. Rebellion's work, every bit as bombed-out and broken as the war-torn cities of Rome: Open City or Germany: Year Zero. Burnett's work, which often focuses on children, adds touches of Truffaut's gentleness and generosity as well; always there is the kernel of optimism in these bleakly lovely, often despairing films. Burnett also often worked as cinematographer on his peers' projects, mainly in a sensuous and grainy 16 mm black-&-white, and his delicate textures form a common bond between otherwise disparate films like Bush Mama and Bless Their Little Hearts.

Among these restorations are the movement's masterpieces. Larry Clark's ferocious Passing Through posits jazz as not just the exemplary African-American art form but also a direct link to Africa and a potentially inspiring demonstration of cultural togetherness, cooperation and unity in the face of violence and repression. It opens with a technically breathtaking, seven-layer lap dissolve shot of the diverse instruments of Horace Tapscott's legendary Pan-African People's Arkestra, as each leaps in on a growing groove, creating a riotous visual abstraction to mirror the musical one on the soundtrack. Thereafter, Clark plumbs black revolutionary politics and white exploitation within a music industry designed to cheat black cultural producers as efficiently and ruthlessly as any "Settlement Day," as well as an ancient cultural heritage embodied in Clark's inspired casting of playwright-singer Langston Hughes' collaborator, and longtime actor Clarence Muse (then 90) as Papa, mentor and grandfather to Warmack (Nathaniel Taylor), a saxophonist lately freed from Attica, where he survived the uprising. As his options are successively canceled out, Warmack finds that political violence is his only recourse. Resurrecting the white-hot, near-Martian foreignness of left-wing black-nationalist politics of those times is another of the series' great gifts to us.

Like Passing Through, Gerima's Bush Mama ends with a justifiable homicide and the onset of full political awareness in the title character Dorothy (UCLA regular Barbara O. Jones). But Gerima's approach to this woman's steady mental deterioration in the face of poverty and institutional racism (her man is imprisoned, her daughter is raped by a white cop), and her subsequent recovery is no less formally audacious than Passing Through. Images often are accompanied by one or two layers of nonsynchronous sound, at times in conflict both with the image and with each other. As Dorothy breaks further and further down, we witness her trials, as it were, from within her mind.

The series' sheer comprehensiveness defies easy summation here, stretching as it does from obscure shorts from the late '60s — such as Burnett's exquisite Several Friends (1969) — to some of the later work of the program's alumni (Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, Burnett's To Sleep With Anger), and from the formal radicalism of Barbara McCullouch's Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification and Ben Caldwell's collages Medea and I & I: An African Allegory to the nakedly commercial, quasi-grindhouse work of Jamaa Fanaka, the first director to finish and release a commercial feature while at UCLA (Welcome Home, Brother Charles).

Suffice it to say, this is easily the cinematic centerpiece of the sprawlingly momentous Pacific Standard Time project. It is as if some giant gap in our history has suddenly been filled in for us. It's only been a 30-year wait: Seize the chance.

L.A. REBELLION: CREATING A NEW BLACK CINEMA | Oct. 7-Dec. 17 | Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater | cinema.ucla.edu


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