The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Film scholar Clyde Taylor coined the name "L.A. Rebellion” for a retrospective of the Black cinema made at UCLA between the 1960s and 80s that was held at the Whitney Museum in 1986. The name conflates the filmmakers’ radical aesthetics with the Watts Rebellion and Black Power and Civil Rights Movements. It does not account for the Asian, Latinx, Native American and white film students who also sought styles outside the Hollywood formula, and remains a point of contention for some of those Black filmmakers it gathers under one denomination. “Rebellion” suggests a collective response to the status quo, rather than a series of independent expressions with diverse influences and motivations. But the slogan stuck, and, for better or worse, remains the most common calling card for a vital Black cinema movement that hasn’t been replicated since.
Many L.A. Rebellion filmmakers resist such groupings. But the sense of community between film students and faculty, which bred fruitful collaboration, collective self-sufficiency, and a range of politically charged styles, is generally embraced among them as a critical element of their success. Some of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers include, but are not limited to, Barbara McCullough, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Alile Sharon Larkin, Ben Caldwell, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Billy Woodberry, Carroll Parrott Blue, Larry Clark, O. Funmilayo Makarah, and Jamaa Fanaka. They worked on each other's projects as crew and shared cast members. They told stories that were close to them using the limited resources available. Charles Burnett wrote Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), photographed the film and his daughter played a supporting role. They also shared an actress in Kacey Moore through the film, a lead in Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978), and actor Nate Hardman, who played “Babe brother” in My Brother’s Wedding (1983). Larry Clark was the second cinematographer on Haile Gerima’s Hour Glass (1971) and a camera assistant on Burnett’s The Horse (1973). Barbara O. Jones starred in Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979) as well as Julie Dash’s Diary of An African Nun (1977) and so on and so on.
Burnett shot films in his neighborhood, casting his friends and neighbors; Gerima commandeered a condemned apartment complex with residents to shoot Bush Mama. There was a lack of resources, but no shortage of cooperation, and many of them, like Gerima, believed “your limitations work for you, not against you” as he said in “A Conversation on Black Aesthetics'' at the Blackstar Film Festival in 2016. Burnett made Killer of Sheep for around $8,000 and used old glue to piece the negative together. It fell apart at the lab, so he had to recut it, remix it, and the result went on to win the Critic’s Prize at Berlin International Film Festival in 1981. Nine years later, the film was inducted into the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” but not necessarily all or more than one of the three.
Most discourse surrounding the L.A. Rebellion embraces its economy and cultural significance while prevaricating the filmmakers' contributions to form. Western art criticism mostly maintains that art, life, and politics exist in separate vacuums and often fails to recognize the cumulative potential of a movement that acknowledges all three intersect. Like the Black Arts Movement and the many kindred movements from the 1960s on, the L.A. Rebellion came to stand for a body of work that accounted for the outside world. These movements propounded that words, sounds and images have innate political implications, and that mainstream art and media have denied, neglected, and manipulated them to our collective peril. Concurrently, countries across Africa fought for independence from their European colonizers, and fervent revolutions reverberated across the rest of the third world in Asia and Latin America, each with their own radical art movements in step. Hence came Third Cinema, a politicized cinema unlike the structuralist European “Second Cinema.” To put it simply, Third Cinema rejects Hollywood (First Cinema) both politically and through form for a common good. Second Cinema rejects it through the latter for an auteur’s freedom of formal expression. Exposed to Third Cinema by UCLA professor and filmmaker Elyseo Taylor and his successor Teshome Gabriel, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers were often inspired by the movement’s aesthetics and values.
Two years after the Watts uprising, the chairman of the UCLA film school used affirmative action funding to bring more BIPOC students to the film school. Elyseo Taylor, the sole Black faculty member at the time, became the founding director of a new program called MUC (Media Urban Crisis Committee) and increased the number of registered minority students. MUC only lasted a year before developing into the ethno-communications program, which awarded four grants and equipment to twenty students of color in 1971 and 1972.
A few other forms of Black cinema existed in the U.S. around this time. Blaxploitation was most popular, so Hollywood appropriated it, and the underground scene and “Newsreel” films, known for the documentaries they produced with the Black Panthers, remain mostly obscure. The “New York Black Independents,” chiefly Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground, 1982) and Bill Gunn (Ganja & Hess, 1973) would spring up here and there in the 70s and 80s.
Blaxploitation “was used as a pejorative term like a putdown, now it’s evolved into its own genre.” L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka, whose work is commonly mislabeled Blaxploitation, said in an interview with Jeff Brummett. The “genre” portrayed drug and crime related violence between police and Black communities with stylized action, comedy and drama. Despite reversing the Hollywood perspective so that the Black characters were the heroes and the police officers were the villains, the genre also perpetuated stereotypes and hypersexualized Black men and women. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, considered one of the first and formative Blaxploitation films, opens with its 14-year-old protagonist in bed with a sex worker at the brothel he’s raised in before fading into a shot of him having sex again as an adult. In the present day, the protagonist is called “Sweetback” (played by the film’s writer/director Melvin Van Peebles), and performs in the brothel’s sex show, where audiences fawn over how well endowed he is; a fact the film makes sure we don’t forget.
Some L.A. Rebellion filmmakers took issue with Blaxploitation films, but perhaps it was Fanaka’s work that confronted them most directly. During his tenure at UCLA, he wrote, directed and produced three feature films that received theatrical distribution, a feat that has not been repeated at UCLA, or any film school to my knowledge. In his first feature, Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975), a wrongfully incarcerated man seeks revenge by harnessing his cartoonishly long phallus as a kind of impractical garrote against his foes. “I really wanted to tackle that myth regarding the size of black men's sexual equipment and the idea of sexual power. People don’t realize that even though that was many years ago it was still relevant then and if you tell a lie enough times it becomes the truth. Somebody’s got to take a pin and burst that balloon and that’s what I did with Brother Charles…” Fanaka explained to Brummett. But despite directly confronting the Blaxploitation genre, Fanaka’s films are, through some twist of fate, often lumped into the same category. His first two features, Emma Mae (1976) and Welcome Home Brother Charles, have often been sold in Blaxploitation double-feature DVDs, and both titles have been altered by distributors to forcibly fit the bill. Welcome Home Brother Charles was changed to the ill-defined Soul Vengeance. Emma Mae was changed to Black Sister’s Revenge, although that “revenge” constitutes only a minute or two of screen time. And after the film’s mild, slice of life opening of games and cookouts at the park, the new title feels comically out of place.
Prioritizing “entertainment” as much as “education,” Fanaka credited Ben-Hur as one of his earliest inspirations and William Wyler as his “favorite director of all time” in an interview with Screenanarchy.“I wanted to entertain the people so that they would come see the film, but [for it to] have a seriousness about it,” Fanaka said in Spirits of the Rebellion: Black Cinema at UCLA. But compared to his less commercially aligned UCLA colleagues, the extent to which Fanaka’s films upended “cultural,” “historical,” and “aesthetic” stereotypes often goes unseen, his work conflated with the styles and values of the genre his work disputed.
Past mayor of Fort-de-France and anti-colonialist writer Aime Cesaire found what he called in an interview with Rene Depestre at the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1967 an “Antillean French, a Black French, that, while still being French, had a Black character.” Stuck with the French language imposed upon him in school (Antillean Creole was banned), he sought a point of departure from the language of his oppressors through those French poets like Lautreamont and Rimabud who prefigured surrealism before it had a name. Surrealism, as Cesaire put it to Depestre, was a “weapon that exploded the French language” and “a process of disalienation” that helped him plumb the depths to his own “ancestral layers.” It is perhaps for similar reasons that L.A. Rebellion filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, and Alile Sharon Larkin chose Italian neorealism as their point of departure from the Western cinematic language. Of course, the Italian neorealist films were, contrary to much of Hollywood and other European cinema, class conscious, political, and naturalistic. Burnett wrote, in his Criterion essay “Bicycle Thieves: Ode to the Common Man,” that Vittorio de Sica’s film “has the quality and intention of a documentary. It is totally unromantic. The characters are just ordinary people, and the film gives the impression you are watching life unfold before you. It is entertaining, but that is not the goal. Its goal is to make audiences aware of a particular social condition that needs a political solution. It is clear that it was made as a tool for change.” Burnett’s early works like Several Friends, Killer of Sheep, and My Brothers Wedding, are shot, like the Italian neorealist films, with naturalistic lighting, nonprofessional actors, and shots limited to simple, static compositions, tilts and pans on a tripod, and an occasional handheld move.
Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, about an unemployed family man, Charlie (Nate Hardman), who starts up an affair to avoid his troubles at home, also keeps the camera almost entirely static on a tripod like the neorealist films, but liberally employs zooms. The camera height is eye level throughout, except in the scene where Charlie lies to his wife, Andais (Kacey Moore), that he’s headed to the grocery store when he’s actually headed to the house of the other woman he’s seeing. The camera is as low as her feet and tilts up to catch her reaction. Because this is the first time we’ve seen anyone presented in this power angle, we realize Andais knows her husband is lying without her having to pantomime the kind of dramatic reaction Hollywood films depend on. When Andais confronts Charlie about his affair in the climactic argument, the film breaks another one of its rules by going handheld for the first time in an unbroken 10 minute take. The problems Charlie avoided the whole film have finally come to the surface, and the camera, accordingly, can no longer bear restraint.
We see a similar naturalism in Larkin’s Your Children Come Back to You (1979). The film tells the story of Tovi (Burnett’s daughter, Angela, again), a young girl who dreams of another country: “Everyone would be Black, it would be our country. But then I thought it would be real dirty.” Her mom, Lani, tells her to knock it off. She raised Tovi to embrace her roots and knows her daughter knows better. With her husband away in Angola (fighting in the Angolan Civil War for the MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola]), Lani struggles to support her daughter on a single income. To help Lani get back on her feet, Tovi begins to stay at her aunt Chris’ house, which is full of dishware and home decor from Europe. Aunt Chris discourages Tovi’s Black pride, saying she ought to get her hair fixed and put on a fresh set of clothes. Tovi’s tugged between her mother’s embrace of her African roots and her aunt’s euro-centric tendencies, though Tovi never really yields to the latter. The film is shot entirely on a tripod, from a child’s height, and employs tight close-ups on faces, actions, and embraces, that set Larkin’s style apart from the locked off wides and medium shots of Burnett and Woodberry. The world is perceived through Tovi, so the camera’s often at her low eye level looking up at the adults above. The final shot becomes a freeze frame of a close-up on Tovi embracing her mother, affirming the title.
L.A. Rebellion filmmakers like Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, and Zeinabu Irene Davis occupy a less traditional stylistic space. Larry Clark found his voice by emulating jazz on film. His master thesis, Passing Through (1977), famously opens with a 7-minute jazz concert that entirely consists of shots superimposed over each other: bold red, blue and yellow silhouettes of fingers on keys and sticks on drums bleeding into and out of a stark black backdrop. Clark’s As Above So Below (1973), an absurdist tragicomedy about a Black Vietnam War veteran named Jita-Hadi who gets recruited by an underground network of Black insurgents, begins like a radioplay: we hear the full dimensions of a gunfight that plays out in full before police sirens swirl into earshot after the fact. Instead of the usual soundscape over the default black, we hear the sounds played over white. Later, in a gunfight between trigger happy police and Black insurgents, the film cuts to white for every shot fired, implicating “white” in the violence committed on both sides and reversing the color typically associated with negative space.
In Haile Gerima’s Ashes and Embers (1982), he tells the story of a Black Vietnam Veteran named Ned (John Anderson), who realizes he feels uprooted in his own country when he returns home from his tour. Later in the film, he visits his ex-girlfriend who has since separated from him for his erratic behavior. Reenacting traumatic, gory memories from the war to her at her doorstep, he gets progressively louder and more aggressive, provoking his son to come outside and intervene: “My father died in Vietnam!” the little boy yells, and the line echoes until it breaks out of the diegetic soundscape into a voice-over of the same line that’s mixed louder than the rest. Through this technique, we know the line’s been engraved into his father’s memory, “My father died in Vietnam!” will ring forever in his head.
Ashes and Embers begins by framing itself in a flashback, cuts to a time before that flashback (and so on), and even jumps beyond the established present tense, eliminating any point of reference. Most of Gerima’s work moves in this nonlinear sense, a past, present, and future that co-exists, and, by rapidly intercutting them, produces a tension that binds the three. Julie Dash also works non-linearly. But rather than combining the past, present and future through editing, she does so seamlessly in-camera, within a single shot. In Diary of an African Nun, the titular nun (Barbara O. Jones) narrates a scene from her past: the time she saw two white nuns in their gleaming habits and realized she wanted to be one. We see her admiring the nuns as a child and pan to reveal her in her present, adult form, walking across the same frame with her younger self in the background.
In Dash’s groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust (1991), the “unborn child” character narrates the film from the future and occasionally frolics through the frame in the present day. Dash uses a staggered frame rate effect in these shots to cue the audience when the present and future merge, and uses the same technique for characters who enter the present from the past. Gerima’s method of cutting evokes various stages of time that yearn to communicate with each other but struggle to coalesce. Dash’s in-camera techniques evoke unity and a dialectic that can only occur when there is a seamless continuity between past, present, and future...
Zeinabu Irene Davis’ Cycles (1989) depicts Rasheeda’s (Stephanie Ingram) stasis as she awaits the results of a pregnancy test. In the meantime, she sits, does chores, bathes, moisturizes, and performs Orisha purification rituals. In between static compositions that avoid outright symmetry, Davis cuts the mundane activities into a series of still photographs that begin fixated on the cleaning apparatus and the object, but become more about how Rasheeda’s body moves while she cleans. In the first photo montage, the stills show the mop and the floor but omit Rasheeda from the frames. The photos are lifeless and cut together slowly. She then cleans the toilet, which brings her arms into frame but obscures her face and retains the slower cutting. But when she stands up to scrub the walls, music kicks in, and the still photos of Rasheeda seem to dance along with it. The photos cut rapidly to the rhythm and sometimes dissolve into each other. Then Davis cuts back to motion picture film to show Rasheeda gyrating to the music in real time. When she falls asleep, she dreams of herself running around outdoors. To portray her fantasies of mobility, Davis animates Rasheeda’s actions in stop motion and even utilizes a timelapse. Then Davis cuts back to the reality of Rasheeda asleep in a still frame, bringing her fantasies to a screeching halt.
Part of the collective L.A. Rebellion aesthetic is variably defined by a kind of “imperfection” that should not be misconstrued. In Haile Gerima’s Imperfect Journey (1994), Gerima wanders his birth country Ethiopia with his camera in the aftermath of the military junta of Mengistu Haile Mariam. In one scene, a group of young people from the countryside of Gondar hike their way to school while Gerima filmed them zoomed in from the opposite end of a long dirt road. The telephoto, compressed image (like looking at them through a telescope) makes them feel as far away as they really are, and their voice-over narration, about how they hope to achieve better jobs in the city by going to school, is recorded far from the microphone so that their aspirations feel futile. Up until this point, Gerima has framed his camera close to the students, but this shot follows a scene where he confirms that the amount of jobs in the city are decreasing, and that there are ample kids in the city with more time and money than those in the province to fill them. In Gerima’s opening narration, he claims these students hike four to five hours to get to a class that lasts three. But in the very next scene, the kids tell him the commute takes three hours, some two. With this contradiction, he has introduced the “imperfect” nature of his film, eschewing the untenable illusion of “objectivity” that traditional, talking head documentaries strain to uphold.
Gerima defines Perfection as a construct of white supremacy that “presupposes a standard,” and Eccentrism as the other half of the construct that only deviates from that standard in ways that perpetuate it. Not unlike the “swinging pendulum” of the American two-party system, white Hollywood and white art house cinema seemingly compete but ultimately uphold each other and represent something one and the same. “The imitation is perfect. The origin is imperfect. The rupture is imperfect,” Gerima said in his Conversation on Black Aesthetics. The L.A. Rebellion filmmakers developed new styles on their own terms. To innovate, their films could not aim to be “perfect.” But it is perhaps because most viewers are conditioned to a white criterion, that the L.A Rebellion’s contribution to aesthetics, apart from how the films might be seen as a cultural reaction or “rebellion” to the assumed default, remains recognizable only in part to both mainstream commercial and arthouse audiences.
For a moment in time, filmmakers of color from various class backgrounds were given the resources to make films in a space untouched by the white mainstream. The L.A Rebellion is said to have ended sometime in the late 80s, and Zeinabu Irene Davis, who received her masters in fine arts and video production at UCLA in 1989, is often considered the final filmmaker to emerge from it. After graduating, these artists diverged on their own paths in or outside the mainstream movie industry and spread their influence in different ways.
In the 90s, Jamaa Fanaka filed a series of lawsuits against the Directors Guild of America (DGA) for their failure to enforce its collective bargaining agreement. There was a clause that stated producers would make “distinct” efforts to increase the employment of women and minority directors by a certain percentage each year. In Fanaka’s eighteen years as a member, that percentage decreased. He came up against the biggest law firms in the country until he finally lost on appeal, the federal court called him a “vexatious litigant” and he was suspended by the guild for “conduct unbecoming of a member.” Before he was suspended, Fanaka founded the African American Steering Committee (AASC) to address the specific needs of Black members in the guild. The committee remains in place today, but when you visit the DGA’s website they don’t mention its founder. After the lawsuits, the DGA made sure Fanaka never directed another film. But his legacy continued to impact the industry regardless. “I wasn’t fighting for myself; it was a class action suit for all minorities and women. I exposed the Achilles heel of Hollywood and they moved to change things, now I don’t get credit for it, but I look in the mirror every day and feel pretty good about myself” he reflected in his interview with Brummett.
Charles Burnett went on to direct To Sleep With Anger (1990) to critical acclaim. The film starred Danny Glover and was distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company and Sony Pictures Releasing. But the distributors botched the marketing and only released the film in 17 theaters nationwide. He then directed The Glass Shield (1994), a courtroom drama featuring bit roles by Ice Cube, Elliott Gould, Michael Ironside, and other names, his second time directing professional actors. The film was distributed by Miramax, who pressured Burnett to add more shootouts and put Ice Cube into more scenes, which he did his best to maneuver. From there, Burnett did TV movies, which were even more creatively constrained, and made miraculous anomalies like the short film When it Rains (1995) financed by European TV and the 55 minute long The Final Insult (1997), also European-financed, in between.
After Julie Dash directed Daughters of the Dust, becoming the first Black American woman to direct a theatrically distributed feature-length film, she directed shorts, music videos, an episode of Showtime’s Women: Stories of the Passion (1997) and TV movies like Funny Valentines (1999), Incognito (1999), Love Song (2000), and The Rosa Parks Story (2002). On the set of the Rosa Parks Story, Dash got a fax sent to her trailer that read, “Stop making it so beautiful. This is not a feature film, it’s a television movie.”
Haile Gerima started his own distribution company, Mypheduh Films Inc, with his wife, filmmaker Sirikiana Ana, and self-distributed his film Sankofa (1993). They took the film to one Black community at a time and allotted time for discussion after each screening. Their strategy was to take the money earned screening the film in one city to show it in another. “Prior to this we had been booking our films in art film theaters, and were failing to reach the African American community that could make the film a success--we weren’t aware that art houses alienate the African American community. So, we went to the elders of the African American community in D.C., and they arranged for us to have use of a theater for one week. The film got a huge response--we played to full houses for 11 weeks. We then took the film to Boston and Baltimore, and using the revenue from those screenings, took it to 25 more cities. At this point, we’ve taken in more than $2 million.” Gerima told the L.A Times in 1995. He opted to build his own infrastructure rather than cede ownership of his work to white distributors, and avoided collaborations with what he called the “21st Century Plantation,” Hollywood. In the recent New York Times piece “How the Criterion Collection Crops Out African-American Directors,” (which should more accurately read “How the Criterion Collection Crops Out Black directors”) Haile Gerima likens Criterion to the “independent white American film movement” of the 90s, and goes on to say ““Our experience never allowed us to even think of the possibility of having a relationship with them, because I just feel their very standard is very white supremacist.”
The L.A. Rebellion paved the way to Hollywood for the individual successes of filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Robert Townsend, Darnell Martin, etc. in the 80s and 90s. But the “Rebellion” filmmakers never stopped working. Julie Dash directed a $1.5 million immersive film exhibit for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2004, recently helmed episodes of Queen Sugar, is developing an Angela Davis biopic with Lionsgate and is slated to direct episodes of ABC’s Women of the Movement. Burnett continues to shoot documentaries and is in talks with Amazon to direct a film about Robert Smalls. Zeinabu Irene Davis recently directed a documentary on the group, Spirits of the Rebellion: Black Cinema at UCLA (2016) and is a film professor at the University of California, San Diego. Alile Sharon Larkin has her own production company that creates “Afrocentric and global multimedia and arts experiences for children and families.” Haile Gerima maintains Mypheduh Films Inc. and Sankofa Video Books and Cafe, “a sanctuary for Pan African culture since ‘98” in the nation’s capital, and is currently working on the sequel to his documentary Adwa: An African Victory.
The breadth of the L.A. Rebellion continues to grow from all directions and is nearly impossible to encapsulate. I can only encourage you to seek out the filmmaker’s further works, and the films and careers of those filmmakers I could not explore (Barbara McCullough, Ben Caldwell, Jacqueline Frazier, and so on and so on), which are often just as rich and vital. If and when the less accessible works of the Asian (notably Japanese-American filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura), Latinx, Native American, white and Black UCLA filmmakers are recovered or further circulated, a greater dimensionality of the movement’s past will come into view. Most of the L.A. Rebellion films exist outside the mainstream. Like navigating a colonialist’s atlas, what Frantz Fanon once called a “geography animated with intention,” you’ll only find what you’re looking for where the map you’ve been given ends. But the cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance of the L.A. Rebellion, as well as the intersections of art, life, and politics that the movement surveyed, are encroaching on the mainstream and becoming harder than ever to deny.
MORE RECOMMENDED VIEWING
Several Friends (Charles Burnett, 1969)
Rain (Nyesha) (Melvonna Ballenger, 1978)
Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (Barbara McCullough, 1979)
I & I: An African Allegory (Ben Caldwell, 1979)
Wilmington 10 -- U.S.A 10,000 (Haile Gerima, 1979)
Shipley Street (Jacqueline Frazier, 1981)
Relatives (Julie Dash, 1989)
The Final Insult (Charles Burnett, 1997)
Compensation (Zeinabu Irene Davis, 1999)
Teza (Haile Gerima, 2008)