History Lessons

Nick Pinkerton on “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986”

Kathleen Collins, Losing Ground, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.

“B.C. PICTURES and five other major studios announced mainly through the columns that they were not planning to produce any more Black Pictures. There are a few in production, they will be finished. ‘It was discovered that as many ‘Blacks’ went to see Jaws as went to see Sounder?’ […] The industry will of course continue its effort to integrate what has unfortunately been referred to as the white film until an acceptable racial balance has been achieved to the satisfaction of the community at large. ‘In other words, we’re out of work,’ I said.”

This comes from Rhinestone Sharecropping, a 1981 roman à clef exorcizing the creative frustration of the unclassifiable multihyphenate artist Bill Gunn, who’d seen the studio gates shut in his face, and is a fair assessment of “the Biz” after a brief experiment in studio-financed Black Pictures ended. But film history isn’t entirely written with studio money, and some recent repertory programs have been filling in the lacuna. The touring “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” originated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, showcased the work of the artistically ambitious black filmmakers, both African-born and African-American, who emerged from the UCLA film school from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Now, covering approximately the same period on the East Coast, we have “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986,” comprising twenty-four individual programs, including features and packaged shorts, beginning today at Film Society of Lincoln Center.

“Tell It Like It Is” opens with a screening of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, which will be preceded on opening night by comments from New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, and will stay on at Lincoln Center for a weeklong theatrical run, its first and only official release since being completed in 1982. (The movie comes courtesy of Milestone Films, which had a considerable hit with its long-belated release of LA Rebellion figure Charles Burnett’s 1978 Killer of Sheep.)

The only feature completed by Collins, Losing Ground observes the widening of an emotional breach between a middle-class couple. Sarah (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor; her husband, Victor (Gunn), a painter and larger-than-life raconteur who prods her to move upstate for the summer so he can work en plein air. While she’s a tightly wound black bluestocking, researching a paper on “ecstatic experience,” he’s a committed bohemian who researches in the arms of a Puerto Rican girl (Maritza Rivera). This leaves Sarah open to the charms of a suave actor (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) who she winds up acting opposite when, with uncharacteristic impetuousness, she decides to appear in one of her students’ thesis films, described as an “archetypal interpretation of the Frankie and Johnny myth.” The film is a silent “musical,” danced in the language of shim-sham and cakewalk by Scott and Jones, who also gets to mouth one of the finest pick-up lines in all of cinema: “Christianity has had a devastating effect on man as an intuitive creature, don’t you think?” Collins, a film professor at City College of New York, left a small but distinguished legacy when she died at age forty-six in 1988—her fifty-four-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), which shows her and DP Ronald K. Gray beginning experiments with subjective camerawork that they’ll continue in Losing Ground, will also have a revival.

Religious ecstasy, the effect of Christianity on intuitive man, and the interplay between folkloric and philosophic Euro-African influences are all at play in another film featuring both Gunn and Jones which can be seen at FSLC, Ganja & Hess (1973), an utterly original vampire film which Gunn wrote and directed. Gunn had broken into studio filmmaking directing the unreleased Stop and scripting Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (both 1970), then spent the remainder of his creative career spiraling further and further out into his own different-drummer creative orbit. Extracts from the Gunn-directed television experiment Personal Problems (1980) will also screen. Scripted by the novelist Ishmael Reed, Personal Problems has for lack of a better description been dubbed a “soap opera,” but what I’ve seen is nearer to Cassavetes than The Young and the Restless, a showcase for Gunn’s idiosyncratic compositional eye and loose, rangy, tumultuous ensemble performances. (The night before the opening of “Tell It Like It Is,” Reed will appear at Maysles Cinema in Harlem to present his short film The Only Language She Knows.)

Left: Camille Billops and James Hatch, Suzanne Suzanne, 1982, sound, 30 minutes. Right: Ayoka Chenzira, SYVILLA: They Dance to her Drum, 1979, sound, 15 minutes.

In Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, a prick from an ancient African ceremonial dagger activates an atavistic bloodlust in Jones’s imperious Dr. Hess, who eventually destroys himself after attending a raucous service at the church where his chauffeur acts as minister. (The almost documentary quality of the church scenes contrasts with the sensual, baroque atmospherics that Gunn develops elsewhere.) The central role of the church, for good or ill, is on display throughout works in “Tell It Like It Is”—One Last Look (1969), a sixty-minute film made by Charles Hobson for New York’s WABC-TV from a play by Steve Carver, is largely shot from a behind-the-pulpit POV. Hobson’s film concerns two families—one official, the other illegitimate—gathered to grieve their dead patriarch at his open-casket funeral, as one after another family member takes their turn confronting his unquiet spirit, which talks (and winks) back. Hobson will be on hand to present the little-seen One Last Look, as well as a selection of clips from Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, the community-oriented television show which aired on New York’s W-NEW from 1968 to 1970, on which he got his start as a TV producer. (Included are interviews with Harry Belafonte and a performance by LeRoi Jones’s Young Spirit House Movers.)

Camille Billops and James Hatch’s Suzanne Suzanne (1982), like One Last Look, interrogates the wreckage left behind in the absence of a dead parent. The subject is Billops’s niece, Suzanne, a recovering heroin addict who discusses the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her deceased father. The film’s arresting climax has Suzanne and her mother, an elegant sometimes-model, arranged together against a black backdrop in a composition reminiscent of Bergman, breaking down as they share together the memory of the beatings that they’d suffered alone. Suzanne Suzanne plays as part of a “Women’s Work Program,” along with two shorts by Ayoka Chenzira: _Syvilla–They Dance to Her Drum (1979), a documentary about the last months of Syvilla Fort, who taught a blend of Dunham technique and other modern influences at her studio on Forty-Fourth Street, and HAIR PIECE: a film for nappyheaded people (1985), a history of hair-straightening torments told through cut-out construction paper animation.

While “Tell It Like It Is” might be taken as an East Coast answer to the “L.A. Rebellion” program, in truth it is a difficult proposition to designate coastal “schools” of black independent filmmaking. Daughters of the Dust filmmaker Julie Dash, a key LA Rebellion figure, was born in Queens, while Billops, though based in New York when she made Suzanne Suzanne, is a USC-educated Californian. More to the point, the African-American diaspora leads back, in a great many cases, to the South and its “peculiar institution,” a past found very present a century or more after Abolition. A program of films by Madeline Anderson, who will be introducing her works in person, begins with her I Am Somebody (1970), a retelling of a 1969 strike by mostly black hospital workers of the Medical College Hospital of the University of South Carolina, Charleston. That integration has done little-to-nothing toward correcting gross economic disparity is the through line of I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982), made by the married team of Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley, which follows Harlem-born author James Baldwin as he tours the land of his ancestors and of past political struggles, while interposed archival footage allows older subjects to interact with their younger selves. On the eve of the Reagan election, Baldwin revisits the battlefields of the civil rights movement, from Birmingham to Selma to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to the “enlightened” North, where the author Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) takes him on a guided tour of the gutted slums of his native Newark. (Baraka is the subject of a program of his own which includes his 1968 short The New-Ark.)

The dates bracketing Film Society’s program are not chosen at random: 1968 is the year of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, of the Newark Spirit House and The New-Ark, and of the epochal Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves. The significance of 1986 can be summarized in a single title: Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, which will play FSLC, as will Lee’s thesis film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barber Shop: We Cut Heads. The success of She’s Gotta Have It was understood to have ushered in a new era for black American filmmaking, though Lee, no less (and probably more) than most filmmakers, is only as good as his last movie. The director has turned to Kickstarter to finance his most recent work, which will open in New York while “Tell It Like It Is” is still under way. Titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, it’s a contemporary remake of Ganja & Hess, a choice which may be taken as a sign of stalled creativity, or of refreshing his practice by returning to history. One may think of Lee when watching the motormouth student filmmaker in Losing Ground rhapsodizing on “Pearl McCormack in Scar of Shame, Philadelphia Colored Players, 1927” and “Dorothy Dandridge, Bright Road, Gerald Mayer, MGM, 1953,” and acutely aware of his place in a grand tradition.

“Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986” plays February 6–19 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.