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Friday, November 1, 2013

LA Rebellion tour recalls alternative to blaxploitation era

Billy Woodberrys The Pocketbook screens Saturday at Emory as part of the month-long L.A. Rebellion tour.
  • Billy Woodberry's The Pocketbook screens Saturday at Emory as part of the month-long L.A. Rebellion tour.

The blaxploitation era is so synonymous with the '70s that it's hard to imagine any other movement in African-American film occupying the same time period. But in a decade defined by such ghetto morality tales and stereotypical tropes as Superfly drug dealers, private dicks named Shaft, and that pimp-licious misogynist The Mack, an underground black film uprising was happening in Los Angeles that served as the antithesis to Hollywood.

Known in retrospect as the L.A. Rebellion, the School of Black Filmmakers consisted of a black cinema scene that began to emerge from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television in the early 1970s as a result of the school's ethno-communications initiative in the wake of the Watts Riot in 1969. While responsible for nurturing such celebrated independent filmmakers as Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1992) and Library of Congress National Registry of Film entrants as Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1979), over 50 contemporaries would eventually arise from the school with counter-cultural and community-based approaches to the craft of filmmaking.

Emory University is currently hosting a month-long touring retrospective of LA Rebellion, featuring screenings of over 30 shorts and feature-length films spanning from the early '70s to the turn of the millennium. With themes ranging from black radicalism (Larry Clark's As Above, So Below) to female empowerment (Jamaa Fanaka's Emma Mae) and approaches both experimental and commercial in scope, a curated mix of films will screen in Atlanta for three weekends in November. As the tour enters its second weekend at Emory, with filmmaker Billy Woodberry and co-curator Allyson Nadia Field in attendance for post-screening discussion, I talked to Field, an assistant professor of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA, about the legacy of L.A. Rebellion and whether college campuses can still serve as communal incubators for filmmakers of color today.

The name "L.A. Rebellion" sounds pretty definitive. Did the filmmakers have the foresight to come up with that at the time or did that come about later?

Allyson Nadia Field: That was coined by Clyde Taylor in the early '80s for a Whitney [Museum of American Art] exhibition. Other scholars called it the L.A. School. But they were conscious of working together and they were conscious of being a group. So they did have meetings, many of them. Not all of them were engaged in these direct discussions and not all of them were there at the same time. There were several phases or cohorts of students. But from the early days, they would sit around and talk about what it was that they wanted to do and how they were a group. They couldn't agree on their manifesto [and] they couldn't agree on a name, [but] they agreed on methods. They were very conscious of sharing a common commitment to representing communities that they thought were misrepresented or underrepresented.

Their [approach to] filmmaking was really engaged with the community, especially here in Los Angeles. They saw it as empowering rather than alienating, which popular cinema was doing. They saw films as a tool of social change [or] a mechanism for personal transformation and heightened consciousness. And you can see that in something like Bush Mama by Haile Gerima, where the whole point is that the protagonist goes through a political awakening.

Talk about some of the differences or tension that existed within the group in terms of style and approach to filmmaking?

There were over 50 filmmakers, so they all had different approaches even though they were working together on one another's films. Fundamentally, these are independent filmmakers each with a voice and wanting to say their own thing. There was this impulse on one hand to make film as an art practice and on the other as a commercial enterprise to make films and make money. So you can see Jamaa Fanaka as the only UCLA student in university history to make three feature films while he's a student and commercially distribute them, on one hand, and other filmmakers who were much more engaged in the Black Arts Movement, who thought about their films as participating in the art side of filmmaking and were less concerned with commercial distribution.

What are some of the more artsy contributions from the collective?

Ben Caldwell's Medea and I & I: An African Allegory are art films. I & I was made as a thesis film to demonstrate his ability to do documentary, experimental and fiction film, so it kind of goes through three different modes. Don Amis's Ujamii Uhuru Schule is a documentary about a black power school in Watts. Larry Clark's As Above, So Below is a really powerful film. It's a film that's highly experimental in some respects but is also really in dialogue with those blaxploitation films about radicalism. If you think about Gordon Parks and filmmakers like that who are thinking about ways of filming contemporary black radicalism in an action sense without selling out the community, he's doing something like that.

The Sunday program in week three has several films that explore issues of family, parenting, education, personal choices of children and youth. Then you've got something on the other end of the spectrum, like Bellydancing by Alicia Dhanifu, which is partly a documentary about bellydancing but also an instructional video or early kind of exercise video. So you see the full range here of different kinds of filmmaking practices and modes.

With a lot of these films running counter to the kind of images that were coming out of Hollywood at the time, what kind of effect do you think LA Rebellion has had on contemporary commercial cinema, especially in terms of black films?

It's interesting because one of the great questions people always ask is "Why did these filmmakers not make more films?" One of the reasons that they were so prolific and able to have this kind of outpouring when they were students is they had access to equipment and resources, and once they left the university they found that in most cases the doors shut and the opportunities to work in Hollywood were really rationed. So many of them left, many of them sought other careers. But at the same time, I think this current generation of black filmmakers has really been inspired by the way they were able to make films on shoestrings and the way they were able to mobilize communities to help with the filmmaking. They were able to create such beautiful testaments to their communities through film.

Whether it be African-Americans or any other minority, it seems unlikely that the kind of environment that created LA Rebellion could happen in today's political environment being that this was an intentional effort by UCLA to attract more African-American students.

I mean, Jamaa Fanaka talks about being in Compton on his way to rob somebody with a friend, and then he passed a storefront window that UCLA had rented out and there was a big banner that read "UCLA Welcomes You." They went into South Central and were recruiting potential students [and] I have not driven by a storefront like that here so I don't know if that kind of thing would exist nowadays - especially with the budget cuts in the university and the great rapid increase in tuition [making it] exponentially much more expensive. At the time it was much more affordable and a lot of these filmmakers were coming in as grown adults. They were mature. They had families. They weren't 21; they were in their 30s. And that kind of possibility is something that I hope to see in the coming years but I'm really pessimistic about it because of the political climate.

Certainly, this is one of my major motives for being involved in this project: To show what happens when you create the opportunities and you get this creative output that's only created by letting people in the door. Now they all came in under different auspices - some came in under affirmative action programs, some under equal opportunity programs, some were directly recruited into this new ethno-communications program, some came from undergrad, some transferred - so I don't want to make it seem like all of these students came in under affirmative action because they didn't. But most of them came in under programs that were facilitated by equal-opportunity programs and the university's recognition at the time - post-Watts and pressure from the black student body - that there was a very real need here for greater diversity in the curriculum, in the faculty, and among students. That was true not just with African-Americans, but there were also programs in the film school at the time for Chicano students, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. And they all worked on each other's films. So there was this deliberate attempt to put cameras in the hands of filmmakers of particular communities to tell these stories - sort of an auto-ethnography in a way. Which has problems and issues and whatever, but the idea was there was a recognition on the part of the university that there was a need for this diversity. So it's really incredible that this outpouring of creativity and excellent work that's gotten huge international attention was only possible because of the conditions that were put in place by the university.

LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema screenings continue Fri.-Sun., Nov. 1-3, and resume Nov. 15-Nov. 17 and Nov. 22-Nov. 24. All screenings begin at 7:30 p.m. Emory University, 205 White Hall, 301 Dowman Dr. For full schedule of films screening, visit liquidblackness.com.

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