The L.A. Rebellion Movement and Its Effect On Black Cinema

by Diego Garcia

In order to understand the significance of the L.A. Rebellion and the filmmaking perspective that took place with it, we’ll have to first delve into some of the hotbed issues which plagued the United States at the time. In 1965, on top of the fight for civil rights and the ever growing nature of the Vietnam War, the Los Angeles area had just borne witness to the Watts Riots (otherwise commonly known as the Watts Uprising or the Watts Rebellion). The riots occurred after a 21-year old black man named Marquette Frye was pulled over by police and beaten with a baton after he failed a sobriety test, with rumors that a pregnant woman at the scene had been kicked circulating around. The resulting six days of civil unrest throughout the city, as well as a recent push for affirmative action, led to a decision by the University of California, Los Angeles to incorporate a Ethno-Communications division which would tend to the needs of Black, Asian, Chicano and Native American students. This particular ruling covered the school’s film/theater/television department, which led to many African and African-American artists to pursue their passion for the silver screen.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1978):

“Burnett provided a realm of authenticity and intricacy to Black cinema which was unlike anything that had been seen before.”

The most substantial aspect of the L.A. Rebellion was that it gave black filmmakers one of the earliest outlets to express themselves through their art, allowing them to defy typical Hollywood conventions that came packaged with the medium. In addition to defying said-classic romanticized conventions, many of these filmmakers would take elements from sources such as African, Latin and European art films (specifically Italian neorealism) and reappropriate them in a context which fit the African-American experience. The most famous example of this recontextualization, as well as arguably the most famous film in the movement, being Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The film predominantly follows Stan, a family man whose job at a slaughterhouse has taken a toll on him and caused a rift between himself and his family in Watts. Submitted as his thesis for his MFA, the film strikes a resemblance to the neorealism movement of the late 1940’s. Burnett has cited Basil Wright and Jean Renoir as influences, but the touch of slice-of-life filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica can also be felt. This shows that the film has no overarching narrative or character progression, it’s simply a slice-of-life piece dealing with a collection of scenes and attitudes that stem from whatever situation is present on screen. Yet, Burnett makes Killer of Sheep all his own with a sense of atmosphere and tradition that’s never quite been rivaled. Its beauty comes within its bleakness, crafting an environment where our characters are repeatedly trapped in the same rut, clawing to get out, yet taking time to appreciate the brief glimpses of beauty that life can offer us. These moments include a slow dance with a loved one, a warm cup of coffee against a cheek, a daughter being embraced in arms; brief yet joyous events that stand out when caught in a webbed space of monotony. Burnett provided a realm of authenticity and intricacy to Black cinema which was unlike anything that had been seen before.

Ashes and Embers (Gerima, 1982):

“Gerima takes from intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon, utilizing the story of a Black man recuperating from post-traumatic stress disorder as a vessel for the undertakings of all Black men as a whole.“

Another substantial work in the movement that defied the typical conventions of the time was Haile Gerima’s 1982 film, Ashes and Embers. In the midst of films such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter which explored veterans struggling to get their lives together after the Vietnam War, Ashes & Embers was one of the first films to cover the theme from the Black perspective. It deals with a disillusioned veteran named “Nay Charles” hoping to assimilate back into American life and forget the war, only to find that he no longer fits in with the world around him. He has trouble finding a job and relating to his politically charged girlfriend. This causes him to roam everywhere from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, and finally to the countryside in search of himself and a better life. Unlike Killer of Sheep before it, Ashes and Embers is more alertly driven by ideology. Gerima takes from intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon, utilizing the story of a Black man recuperating from post-traumatic stress disorder as a vessel for the undertakings of all Black men as a whole. Nay Charles could even be seen as a fill-in character for Gerima’s own psyche. Both the character and the filmmaker are attracted to, yet critical, of the girlfriend character’s Black nationalist teachings which she abides by with her group. The vantage point is swept up in the middle between the radical movement that has stemmed to change the predominately white institution and the working class African-American that has managed to make it work within the system. After all is said and done, Gerima ultimately decides to plant his trust in the youth who will mend the gap and secure an ongoing future for the African race.

Of course, there are a multitude of films in the L.A. Rebellion worthy of praise and attention. The following is a brief summary of some films that may stand out to our readers: 

As Above, So Below, Larry Clark’s 1973 piece in which a Marine returns home from Vietnam with a politically radical mindset.

The Diary of An African Nun, Julie Dash’s 1977 short film in which a Ugandan nun reflects on the emptiness she feels in an attempt to be one with Christ. The piece was based off of a short story by Alice Walker, who went on to write The Color Purple.

I & I: An African Allegory, Ben Caldwell’s 1979 avant-garde short film which explores the mutual dependence and influence between people, as well as the concept of “I and I” and how it doesn’t equate to an affront or division between people, whereas the separation of the terms “you” and “I” is a construct of Satan designed to split people apart.

The beauty of the L.A. Rebellion movement stems from its uncompromising nature to tackle themes and subjects which most conventional filmmakers would’ve never dreamed of. The unsung filmmakers behind these substantial works used the art form as an outlet to showcase their frustrations with the way America had treated its Black citizens at the time. The–at the time–unsuspecting students of cinema showcased a vast array of both skilled craft and thematic knowledge which proved that Black cinema was, and could be, much more than low-budget exploitation films that centered around lives riddled in crime. It is this writer’s hope that the films listed above, and thensome, will be rediscovered by audiences on a wider scale and dissected and discussed for generations to come.


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