Filmmakers, Los Angeles School of
Filmmakers, Los Angeles School of
The Los Angeles school of filmmakers, also known as the "LA Rebellion," refers to a group of African-American and African filmmakers who worked under the auspices of the graduate film program in the Theater Arts Department at UCLA from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Its members included Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Alile Sharon Larkin, Ntongela Masilela, Jamaa Fanaka, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell, Carroll Parrott Blue, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Julie Dash. Members of the LA school were interested in developing a revolutionary African-American film aesthetic that broke with the Hollywood conventions that had distorted black subject matter since the technology's inception. Unlike African-American filmmakers working in Hollywood, many of whom were involved in the production of blaxploitation films, members of the LA school expressed an explicitly political agenda that extended beyond profit and the superficial interrogation of representation; instead, they were concerned with breaking down what they saw as the internal colonization of African Americans, and they saw film as the primary tool to meet their goal. Rather than replicating Hollywood's emphasis on classical realism, often mistaken for or equated with a mimetic reproduction of reality, the LA school formulated a self-conscious, revolutionary cinema, one that, according to Ntongela Masilela, would be "a film form unique to their historical situation and cultural experience, a form that could not be appropriated by Hollywood" (Masilela, 1993, p. 108).
The LA school filmmakers were inspired by a diverse cross-section of political, industrial, and artistic influences: the black arts movement, the Black Panthers, the writings of Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon, the approach to film production and exhibition practiced by early African-American independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, and the revolutionary "Third" cinemas emerging from Latin American and African countries, particularly Cuba and Brazil, most of which were in the midst of their own political, social, and aesthetic revolutions. Many of the LA school filmmakers adapted the revolutionary filmmaking techniques and politics of Third Cinema in an attempt to free their audience, according to Clyde Taylor, "from the mental colonization that Hollywood tries to impose on its audiences, black and white" (Taylor, 1985, p. 167). A similar rhetoric was used by Melvin Van Peebles, whose Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971) was the precursor to many blaxploitation films. Sweetback's mythic qualities, his virility and his agency, were an attempt to recode Hollywood representations of a disempowered or tamed black masculinity most closely linked with Sidney Poitier and the social protest films from the 1950s and 1960s. Notwithstanding Sweetback 's experimental form and empowered protagonist, the film's politics were not a model for the LA school filmmakers because Sweetback 's fantasy elements, its hyper-sexualized lead character, and its misogyny, like blaxploitation as a whole, were contrary to their goals. Instead, LA school films focused on "family, women, history, and folklore" within the urban milieu of post–Watts rebellion Los Angeles.
No unifying LA school aesthetic exists, and unlike many Latin American and African film movements from the same time, the filmmakers associated with UCLA did not produce a manifesto outlining their goals or prescribing an overarching film aesthetic. Yet, the LA school filmmakers were united in their self-conscious approach to story and technique. Much of this can be linked to the influences that the filmmakers drew from Latin American films such as Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas's Hour of the Furnaces (1968) or Tomás Gutíerrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), but it can also be traced to other cinematic sources, such as Soviet cinema from the 1930s, Italian neorealism from the 1940s, and the French New Wave from the 1950s, all of which provided models of reflexive, low-budget fiction filmmaking. Additionally, some LA school filmmakers drew upon contemporary documentary filmmaking practices such as cinema verité and direct cinema, both of which were self-conscious attempts to question the implied truth of the nonfiction form. Burnett, in particular, was influenced by British social documentarians from the 1930s. Early British documentaries by such filmmakers as John Grierson and Basil Wright (on the faculty at UCLA and Burnett's mentor) developed a model of nonfiction film advocacy that focused on the working class and, for the first time in film history, provided its subjects with a voice. These various influences were, according to Paul Willeman, "examples of an artisanal, relatively low-cost cinema working with a mixture of public and private funds, enabling directors to work in a different way and on a different economic scale from that required by Hollywood and its various national-industrial rivals" (Willeman, 1989, p. 5), and they suggested the direction that many LA school filmmakers would choose: the establishment of a low-budget, socially active film movement that engaged with its immediate context in a language drawing upon diasporic conventions of storytelling.
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) is a good example of the thematic and stylistic diversity utilized by the LA school. The film focuses on a working-class family in Los Angeles that is struggling to maintain its economic and personal integrity in impoverished conditions. The film's main character, Stan, works during the day at a job in an abattoir that desensitizes him and distances him from his wife and children. The film combines an aesthetics of documentary immediacy—location shooting, moving camera, sync-sound—with more experimental and nonnarrative inserts of Stan's experiences in the slaughterhouse and with local children playing in empty lots and on the streets of Watts (also shot on location). The combination of narrative and nonnarrative sections provide both an urgency and poignancy to Stan's experiences while also suggesting the ways in which the experiential dilemma detailed in the film is much larger than just one person: It is experienced by the entire community.
In the links it makes between Stan's dilemma and the community's situation, Killer of Sheep explores themes that were common to many LA school films: the focus on the group over the individual, and the global over the local. One of the many critiques leveled at such blaxploitation films as Sweetback, Shaft, and Superfly was that the films focused on individual gain over community development and that many valorized individuals (drug dealers, pimps) who were seen as aiding in the destruction of African-American neighborhoods. LA school films redefined blaxploitation's narrative focus on the individual hero: Gerima's Bush Mama (1976), for example, extends its examination of African-American urban angst from one family to the experiences faced by impoverished black mothers forced into a debilitating social services system. Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts (1984) references, as Killer of Sheep did, the enervating effects of urban poverty and racism on African-American urban communities through the experiences of one family in Watts. In a different way, Julie Dash's Illusions (1984) self-consciously addresses the responsibility shouldered (and often ignored) by filmmakers through the story of an African-American studio executive passing for white during World War II, again suggesting that the individual and the social are intimately linked.
While the LA school shared a common political vision and a similarity in theme, its films were diverse in format and style, ranging from shorts to features and from conventional narratives to experimental fiction and nonfiction works. Gerima's Bush Mama, for example, is constructed around an experimental narrative, with Gerima often choosing to evoke certain moods and political positions through juxtaposed images and sounds rather than through expository dialogue. The film creates an audiovisual collage of Watts, encouraging the audience to participate in the life of its main character, Dorothy, as she experiences the frustrations of single motherhood, reliance on state support, and life in an urban police state. The film, like most of Ethiopian-born Gerima's output, expands its focus from a strictly American context through its references to the independence struggle in Angola at the time, thus suggesting a diasporic link between African-American urban life and subjugated communities on the African continent.
Many LA school filmmakers incorporated their concern with community into their own professional collaborations, thus embodying in person what they attempted to create onscreen. For example, besides writing, directing, and editing Killer of Sheep, Burnett wrote Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts, was the cinematographer for Gerima's Bush Mama and Larkin's A Different Image (1982), was the camera operator for Larry Clark's Passing Through (1977), and served as an additional photographer for Dash's Illusions. Moreover, many of the filmmakers collaborated with the same performers: Barbara O. Jones (sometimes credited as Barbara O) appeared in Gerima's Child of Resistance (1972) and Bush Mama (1976), Dash's Diary of an African Nun (1977) and Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Davis's A Powerful Thang (1991); Cora Lee Day appeared in Bush Mama, Daughters of the Dust, and Clark's Passing Through; Adisa Anderson in A Different Image (as Michael Adisa Anderson) and Daughters of the Dust; and Kaycee Moore in Killer of Sheep, Bless Their Little Hearts, and Daughters of the Dust. Part of this collaboration was due undoubtedly to financial exigency and circumstance, but it is also a clear indication of the support that existed between the filmmakers and other personnel.
Many of the filmmakers associated with the LA school continued to make films in the 1990s, most notably Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger, 1990), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991), Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993), and Zeinabu irene Davis (Compensation, 1999). In these later feature films, the directors developed many of the themes and alternative aesthetics that first concerned the LA school; for example, most of the films continue the focus on family, history, and folklore. The filmmakers continued to work outside of Hollywood, independently funding their films through a combination of public and private sources. Each, excluding Burnett (whose To Sleep with Anger was distributed by Samuel Goldwyn), also chose alternative distribution channels to reach diverse and appropriate audiences. Gerima, who self-distributes his films (and others, such as Killer of Sheep, from the LA school) through Mypheduh Films, is perhaps the best example of the LA school's continuing industrial and aesthetic legacy: independence and the development of a unique "film form … that could not be appropriated by Hollywood" (Masilela, 1993, p. 108).
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paula j. massood (2005)