L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Creating a New Black Cinema
By Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Threads and Nets
The L.A. Rebellion in Retrospect and in Motion
We're looking at a dynamic network that changed over time. Some of the threads have been severed and some of the nodes forgotten. To get a full, rich picture, we need to see as much as possible. I'm guided here by several questions. What produced the L.A. Rebellion? What has happened since the zenith of the Rebellion? What have we learned that we didn't know then? And how can we come to a better understanding of a specific political media movement to in turn better understand how to use art and culture activism in the future?
We can start by asking, what were the reasons for creating a new Black cinema? The answer seems fairly clear. Hollywood film did present African Americans, but largely as stereotypes, and despite the efforts of talented actors, creative sensibility seemed to stay within a white liberal orbit at best and always within a commercial entertainment imperative. Some arthouse films and the social documentary tradition provided a more serious perspective, but Blacks seldom had full creative control of such projects. Against this backdrop, it seemed that an alternative cinema with African American creative control could serve the Black community's rising expectations unleashed by the civil rights movement.
At the time, the 1970s and early 1980s, there was an expectation, a hope, a utopian desire, a pragmatic assessment that together advanced the idea of a distinct African American filmmaking, grounded in the maker's vision and integrity and speaking to a self-conscious and aware social and political movement for Black liberation. By and large this would be a realist cinema, a continuation of neorealism, independent of the Hollywood studio system and the demands of entertainment media. The L.A. Rebellion films seemed to fit that hope, which was really an aspiration of young filmmakers and filmmakers-in-training. Following their work were some critics and intellectuals: Some of them journalists, some academics, some programmers and festival organizers or curators. And on the edge, some publicists, distributors, and exhibitors. And a few, very few, funders.
That model or hope fell apart in history and the encounter with the real world. In part this occurred because of a flawed analysis of actual conditions. In part it happened because other forces were in operation, still emerging at that point, that could not be easily foreseen. And in part this occurred because although hopes and dreams are necessary to take on the difficult task of making films and building a distinct film culture, they are not enough to sail against the storms of history. It pays to look at the past and what happened, not to rewrite heroes and villains to our liking, and not to assign blame, but to better understand what can be accomplished in terms of building a vibrant media counterculture the next time. So: some lessons.
THE DREAM OF AN AUTONOMOUS AFRICAN AMERICAN FILM CULTURE
Understanding the complexities of an essentially industrial art takes time and experience. As students and young adults, the L.A. Rebellion participants were in process, and part of that process included a heavy dose of utopian optimism. That is normal and a basic element of any arts education. Using delayed gratification to accept postponed goals, developing artists have high hopes and a few blind spots. For the student filmmakers, some economic realities were bracketed: equipment and facilities were provided at school; cast and crew lived at home or in low-rent student situations and they would crew for each other for free; and by not promptly finishing your degree or continuing on as an adjunct teacher or staff person, you could maintain access to equipment, facilities, and other campus amenities for years. All of which gained synergy by student artists romanticizing the possibilities, especially if writing and directing dramatic feature films was the goal. But there were alternate ways. Some aspired to working in documentary modes where a fairly stable set of diffusion institutions existed: television, the educational market, established and new startup distributors and exhibitors, and so forth. And there was a small but established space for artisanal artistic experimentation media.
The dream of an autonomous African American cinema was not just a matter of pragmatics. It also involved positive projection into the future. The major energies unleashed by the civil rights movement invigorated Black arts, in turn inspiring a new generation to cultural production. We now have a better assessment of how the post–civil rights activities turned out, which will be detailed later in this essay, but we can note here that the general harmony and unity of struggle for civil equality helped feed an optimistic view of the future. And new laws, policies, and initiatives for affirmative action opened doors. Given previous exclusion, younger artists pushed for new efforts. They aimed at independent achievement, autonomy rather than simple integration. And critical intellectuals shared and promoted this viewpoint. The default perspective took for granted that there was a coherent community that wanted and would support an alternative to mass consumer culture. And while there were differing degrees of emphasis on nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and other issues, the idea of a core community still held.
BLACK CINEMA: THE CONCEPT
Thinking about Black cinema by the major stakeholders (aspiring makers and culture activists) was framed by established ways of thinking at a time when underlying conditions were rapidly changing. There's no blame here; it is a condition of many social situations. But in the L.A. case, it was also colored by the influence of Third World students being present and by the interests of critical thinkers who shaped disparate people, objects, and events into a synthetic whole for persuasive purposes.
Throughout this period, by and large the critical thinkers of the L.A. Rebellion (both makers and critics) did not deal realistically with the nature of film viewing in the African American community. While dismissing Hollywood film as ideologically corrupt, they did not account for the mass audience's actual cinematic experience, which was primarily using cinema for entertainment in available leisure time. Jamaa Fanaka provides the exception to the rule, and his pursuit of action genres was cleverly attentive to community habits (and markets). But it is notable that much of the L.A. Rebellion corpus conspicuously avoids the three most common paths for Black performers to gain an audience: sports, music, and comedy. The 1970s witnessed an expansion of celebrated African Americans in college and professional sports, while the rising visual presence of Black music, in particular in music videos once Michael Jackson broke the color barrier on MTV in 1983, and of Black comedy, both acerbic stand-up (Richard Pryor) and mild middlebrow (Bill Cosby), found a welcome home in the times.
While it is easy to understand the aspiration for university-educated young artists to produce work that is serious and social in intent, often this work fails in the mass media marketplace. Where the educational and communication function can successfully fuse is in a different sector, one aimed at education and community. But this has remained an undervalued, understudied, and undertheorized part of African American media activity. Actually, by going outside of the Rebellion moment, one can find a range of successful Black professionals working in the range of journalism, television, and the educational film market.
THIRD CINEMA AND INDEPENDENT BLACK FILM
The L.A. Rebellion has come to be seen as a highpoint of the U.S. Black film movement, but that special attention has oversimplified the history, the context, and the development of critical thinking about African American cinema in general and the L.A. Rebellion in particular. The Rebellion's foundational theoretical perspective was embodied in the idea of Third Cinema, thanks largely to the central position of the faculty member Teshome Gabriel as a teacher of film history and criticism at UCLA in those years. Born in Ethiopia, he maintained strong ties with African filmmakers in particular, while being especially critical of Hollywood cinema. Gabriel's own book, his classes on cinema and social/ political change, his connections with international filmmakers, and his screenings of Third World film provided a rich basis for developing a political aesthetics. But it must be understood that Third Cinema as originally conceived in Latin America was a militant and oppositional cinema, a revolutionary one. And that presumed both a specific political movement and a coherent community that the makers and films were speaking from and to. First, these conditions were not really in place in the United States in the 1970s. The unity of the civil rights movement had fractured into the Black Power era with different and often competing organizations and agendas. The Black Arts movement of the 1960s also faded. Of course examples from abroad, especially Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, were inspirational. But they were not always useable models for new work by U.S. filmmakers and taken together did not form a coherent whole. And the original center of Third Cinema was documentary film, militant and oppositional, in the United States probably best embodied in the Newsreel groups. In an expanded view, Third Cinema could encompass a wider range of politically progressive film, but the films then did not fit a formula.
In the process of branding the phenomenon the "L.A. Rebellion," a residual nationalist identity politics pushed to frame the body of work in terms of the maker's race and ostensible intentions. Yet this abstracted the films from a broader history of progressive political films dealing with race. A polemical stance for independence and against Hollywood (especially the Blaxploitation cycle) left hanging any accommodation with entertainment and the urban mass audience.
With the archival process underway, we can see the Rebellion as including a broad cluster of works, often short documentary, experimental, poetic, and essayistic films that show considerable diversity in themes and modes. But in critical discourse, the L.A. Rebellion is best known for developing an auteurist dramatic-feature Second Cinema for the arthouse and niche market. Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), Julie Dash's Illusions (1982) and Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1975), Ashes & Embers (1982), and Sankofa (1993) have been esteemed, taught, programmed, and written about as artistic independent achievements by makers who are singular writer-director creative artists.
IN ITS OWN TIME
It is useful to consider the L.A. Rebellion in terms of the larger national context of African American filmmaking at the time and also in relation to parallel or connected attempts to build distinct independent cinema sectors such as Latino, Asian American/Pacific, feminist, gay and lesbian, and experimental. In the late 1960s there was a national push for admission of minorities into public higher education, with its own particular character in L.A. and at UCLA. There was a group of eager future filmmaker students, who were highly motivated. And all this formed a distinctive local history in what is, after all, an entertainment industry town.
In June 1982, John Hess and I interviewed several key people for research on Los Angeles Black, Chicano, and Asian alternative filmmaking since the 1960s. As two of the Jump Cut co-editors we'd been following this development in articles and reviews we'd published. By meeting with people involved with the emergence of a new political film culture, such as at the Alternative Cinema Conference in 1979, we were eager to learn more about what was going on, and it was clear that L.A. was a very active area.
We interviewed Teshome Gabriel, who had been teaching Third World cinema at UCLA since the mid-1970s and whose dissertation on Third Cinema in the Third World was about to be published as a book. Partway through the interview, we were joined by Dick Hawkins, a UCLA faculty member who was familiar with the earlier and later history. We also had the opportunity to interview filmmaker Charles Burnett, who was in production of his second feature-length film, My Brother's Wedding (1983), and Jesus Trevino, filmmaker and organizer of the Chicano Cinema Coalition. More views were added by Jason Johansen, a former UCLA student in the 1970s who at the time was an active critic and writer on Chicano film. Robert Nakamura, a UCLA film-production faculty member, co-founder of Visual Communications and co-director of the feature Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980), had been present at the beginnings of the movement for Third World independent film in Los Angeles. Nancy Araki, director of Visual Communications, discussed the history and activities of the Asian Pacific visual media center that she led. In addition, Claudia Springer and I interviewed filmmaker and former UCLA student Melvonna Ballenger.
Our interviewees concentrated on telling the history of each separate group. John and I saw many parallels and similarities among the stories, certain things that were mentioned that resonated with the concerns of others we interviewed. We could also draw on our knowledge of other independent filmmaking groups around the country.
Most importantly, we found a pattern of development among politically oriented media groups. In the context of a larger social and political movement for change, some experienced activist media people were joined by other new folks with politically engaged backgrounds. And new energy appeared in the form of students just beginning their studies. Together, they saw a common purpose. By and large, they were already closely related to the community and active in a period of intense effort. In Los Angeles this was specifically the demand for increased minority enrollment at UCLA, which was related to other areas of struggle within higher education institutions such as establishing African American studies and Chicano studies. These folks came together to get some access to (a) training, gaining skills in media work; (b) equipment and facilities; and (c) in some cases money for production (but this varied a lot). At the same time, these people were exposed to other kinds of films than the commercial or mainstream norm, in particular to the new wave of Third World films connected to post–Word War II national liberation struggles.
The participants made films, typically short documentaries that were closely related to what was happening in the communities they came from. In the process the whole group learned a lot, typically working together in a variety of ways to give each other support. At a certain point of development, there was often a desire to form a "collective" organizational form, although the exact meaning of this and participation in it varied substantially and evolved over time. This formal or informal collective had problems and eventually fell apart or drastically changed.
The evolution or devolution had different aspects. Often there were different levels of skills and experience within the group. There were often different political or ideological positions: at the time, feminism and gay issues challenged some old-guard attitudes. And there were changes in individuals. As the first group of activists matured professionally, members had other obligations and wanted to do other projects. Yet newcomers to the group still needed be taught so they could participate. The result was a cycle that some individuals found hindered their own professional development, while others were comfortable with always teaching newbies. Other significant changes occurred as economic and family life changed. As people established financial and personal relations, such as having children or taking on other responsibilities, they found they could not easily continue to live in the student or bohemian lifestyle they had when starting out. Within the group, some people advanced professionally and some didn't. Those who remained static sometimes seemed jealous of those who moved on. Those who succeeded could be seen as too ambitious, overly competitive, or separating from the group's original goals. Class, race, and gender privilege was often involved as well. People with an advantaged background may have had more resources to fall back on, or someone may have been supported by a successful partner who cushioned the hard times.
Excerpted from L.A. Rebellion by Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Preface: Once upon a Time in the West … L.A. Rebellion Clyde Taylor ix
Introduction: Emancipating the Image-The L.A. Rebellion of Black Filmmakers Allyson Nadia Field Jan-Christopher Horak Jacqueline Najuma Stewart 1
Part 1 Critical Essays 55
1 Threads and Nets: The L.A. Rebellion in Retrospect and in Motion Chuck Kleinbans 57
2 Rebellious Unlearning: UCLA Project One Films (1967-1978) Allyson Nadia Field 83
3 Tough Enough: Blaxploitation and the L.A. Rebellion Jan-Christopher Horak 119
4 Anticipations of the Rebellion: Black Music and Politics in Some Earlier Cinemas David E. James 156
5 Re/soundings: Music and the Political Goals of the L.A. Rebellion Morgan Woolsey 171
6 Struggles for the Sign in the Black Atlantic: Los Angeles Collective of Black Filmmakers Michael T. Martin 196
7 Bruising Moments: Affect and the L.A. Rebellion Samantha N. Sheppard 225
8 The L.A. Rebellion Plays Itself Jacqueline Najuma Stewart 251
9 Encountering the Rebellion: liquid blackness Reflects on the Expansive Possibilities of the L.A. Rebellion Films Alessandra Raengo 291
Part 2 L.A. Rebellion Oral Histories 319
10 L.A. Rebellion Oral Histories 321
Selected Bibliography 403
List of Contributors 427