PRINT October 2011


Haile Gerima, Bush Mama, 1976, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 97 minutes. From left: First Welfare Recipient (Minnie Stewart), Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones), and Second Welfare Recipient (Malbertha Pickett)

THAT CHARLES BURNETT’S STARK NEO-NEOREALIST KILLER OF SHEEP (1977), Julie Dash’s nuanced historical drama Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Haile Gerima’s cinematic hand grenade Bush Mama (1976) all grew out of the same fecund moment in film history is not immediately apparent on viewing them. While each film has been hailed in its own right as a landmark achievement in cinematic expression, the three feature-length works evince significantly different styles and sensibilities. Yet the sense that Burnett, Dash, Gerima, and others trained in filmmaking at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s share not only a film education but a commitment to making movies that are simultaneously art and weapon, a commitment that can be grasped in terms of loosely defined, anti-Hollywood aesthetics and black-liberation politics, has motivated critics, historians, theorists, and cineastes to contextualize their work within the framework of a film movement—namely, the LA Rebellion (also referred to as the Los Angeles School).

Variously spunky, raucous, elegant, and contemplative, the films of the LA Rebellion challenged conventional aesthetic strategies and offered visions of black life and existence that stand as insistent politicized alternatives to the images of African Americans projected by Hollywood films. In his 1993 essay “The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers,” Ntongela Masilela, a South African–born scholar who was himself a member of the movement as an undergraduate, observes that the LA Rebellion consisted of two waves of filmmakers whose film training started in the short-lived Ethno-Communications Program at UCLA between 1970 and 1982: The first wave included Gerima (who was born in Ethiopia), Burnett, Larry Clark (the director of Passing Through [1977] and Cutting Horse [2002], not the Larry Clark who made Kids), Ben Caldwell, John Rier, Pamela Jones, Abdosh Abdulhafiz, Jamaa Fanaka, and others; the second, Dash, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Zeinabu irene Davis, Barbara McCullough, Jacqueline Frazier, and Bernard Nichols. These filmmakers have made what should prove to be lasting contributions not only to avant-garde and independent American filmmaking but, more broadly, to cultural politics in the United States. While the Los Angeles School’s significance and impact is still being assessed and debated—indeed, even as these filmmakers continue to create compelling works in film and video—the UCLA Film & Television Archive is about to make its rich collection of films and other materials related to the Los Angeles School available to researchers through a new archive specifically dedicated to the LA Rebellion. Further, under the auspices of the Getty Foundation’s “Pacific Standard Time” program, UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater will showcase more than fifty films in the collection in a series titled “LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema.” In addition to Killer of Sheep, Daughters of the Dust, and Bush Mama, lesser-known films by Burnett, Dash, and Gerima will be included, along with films by McCullough, Davis, Nichols, Woodberry, and others.

Individually, many of the films of the LA School reconceptualize the terms through which black life becomes legible, and they are valuable on their own merits. When considered together as part of a movement, the films offer a conceptualization of black existence in the United States that is remarkably complex, varied, urgent, and still generative today. For example, Larkin’s A Different Image (1982) gives a poetic account of a young African-American woman reclaiming herself and her cultural heritage from the barrage of racist and sexist images that seem to define them. Indeed, the filmmakers of the LA Rebellion sought to undermine the validity of the limiting and dehumanizing images of blackness projected in mainstream Hollywood films and in blaxploitation flicks alike by producing more sophisticated and culturally relevant images. Caldwell’s experimental short I and I: An African Allegory (1977) forwards one of the cardinal tenets of the LA Rebellion: that the minds and imaginations of African Americans have been colonized by Hollywood and other vehicles of white supremacy. I and I is composed of several sections, each filmed in a different style but unified by the figure of a blue-robed visionary, a woman who experiences the loss and historical recovery of her African origins as an allegory for the spiritual decolonization and regeneration of the African diaspora.

Though many LA Rebellion films deployed Hollywood conventions subversively, as did Passing Through, which drew on tropes of the action genre to reveal the dangers of the commodification of black musical traditions, none embraced these conventions as wholeheartedly as Jamaa Fanaka’s blaxploitationesque offerings. Fanaka’s Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), Emma Mae (1976), and Penitentiary trilogy (1979–87) stand in stark contrast to the poetic and allegorical styles of Larkin and Clark and to the deliberative and elegant cinematography of Killer of Sheep and Daughters of the Dust. Indeed, Fanaka’s movies seem to eschew the ideological underpinnings and political commitments of most LA Rebellion films, yet they must be accounted for as part of the same moment and school.

Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, 1991, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. From left: Two Peazant boys (Derrick Coaxum and Neil Howard), Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), Daddy Mack Peazant (Cornell Royal).

Like Bush Mama and Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), many of the films of the LA Rebellion were set in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was, of course, the site of the 1965 riots known as the Watts Rebellion (an appellation intentionally echoed in the film movement’s name). That epochal uprising in protest of state violence against black people helped to shape the political and intellectual sensibilities that characterize the film movement; indeed, addressing the inequities brought to the fore by the riots was one impetus behind UCLA’s Ethno-Communications Program, in which African, African-American, Chicano, Asian-American, and American Indian students were recruited and trained in filmmaking: The LA Rebellion, as noted, was a direct consequence of that initiative.

The heterogeneity and dynamism of the LA Rebellion are apparent not only in the films themselves—from McCullough’s New Jazz–laden experimental Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979) to the blaxploitation-styled Penitentiary trilogy—but also in the various discourses around them. Like the practitioners of Third Cinema, a politicized film movement that began in Latin America in the late 1960s and was a key influence on the LA Rebellion, some members of the Los Angeles School produced manifesto-like texts and other written explorations of their film praxis. They studied and critiqued existing film styles and conventions, illuminating the ideologies that underwrote—and were reproduced through—them. In addition to Third Cinema, many of the filmmakers gravitated toward Italian Neorealism, postrevolutionary Cuban documentary, British documentary realism, and Brazilian Cinema Novo for inspiration and antecedents, and they were heavily influenced by the writings of anticolonial intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as well as by Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukács.

The LA Rebellion has been of interest to film scholars at least since the mid-1980s, when Jim Pines, Paul Willemen, and June Givanni convened a conference whose proceedings would become the seminal volume in the field, Questions of Third Cinema (1990). That collection included essays by Burnett and Gerima, as well as influential pieces by film scholars Teshome H. Gabriel, the author of several pivotal texts on Third Cinema and a film professor at UCLA until his death last year, and Clyde Taylor, whose essay “Black Cinema in the Post-aesthetic Era” draws on the films of the LA Rebellion to make a compelling argument about liberatory filmmaking.

Core thematic concerns of the movement have become of increasing interest to scholars outside of cinema studies. Historian Daniel Widener, for example, sees the films as invaluable documents of African-American life: “They show, first and foremost, ordinary working-class black folks,” he writes in Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (2010), “and they showcase the intersections of race, class, and gender in their lives.” Cultural historian Cynthia A. Young includes a nuanced analysis of LA Rebellion films in her 2006 book Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left. Both Widener and Young highlight the films’ critiques of state violence while situating the LA Rebellion within a broader history of black intellectual production and cultural practice, including literature, jazz, theoretical inquiry, theater, and other visual arts. The inclusion of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “L.A. Rebellion” film series within the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene that “Pacific Standard Time” seeks to tell collaboratively across more than sixty cultural institutions offers further opportunities to assess the connections between the cinematic achievements of the LA Rebellion and other artistic enterprises being pursued in Southern California at roughly the same time.

There are disagreements among the LA Rebellion filmmakers themselves, and among the scholars engaged with their work, about the aims, strategies, purview, and even the name of the movement, and there are those who question whether this diverse group actually constitutes a movement per se. Such discussions are helping to sharpen the focus on the films themselves, on the contexts in which they were produced, on the impacts they continue to have, and on the careers of the filmmakers who made them. While the LA Rebellion archive will effectively delineate the parameters of the movement by defining what counts as its historical materials, the opening of the archive also presents an opportunity to blaze new paths through the LA Rebellion’s times, spaces, and artifacts, to spark new scholarship, debates, and conversations, and to enrich ongoing ones.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s film series “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” runs from October 7 through December 17 at the institution’s Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles.

An associate professor of critical studies in The School of Cinematic Arts and of African American studies in the department of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Kara Keeling is author of The Witch’s Flight: the Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke University Press, 2007).