Since beginning my research on Julie Dash’s films this past winter, I have become fascinated by a particular movement in US black independent cinema dubbed, the “L.A. Rebellion.”
Following the civil unrest of the late 1960s, marked by the Watts Uprising of 1965, as well as the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, a group of young African and African American students entered the UCLA School of Film, Television, and Theatre as part of an “Ethno-Communications initiative” launched to address the concerns of communities of colour (“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion,” n.p.). Some notable students associated with this initiative include: Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woodberry, and of course, Julie Dash.
According to Ntongela Masilela, the cultural aims and artistic practices of this group were “inseparable from the political and social struggles and convulsions of the 1960s” (qtd. in Martin, 2). Unlike Hollywood, these filmmakers drew inspiration from Third world theorists, philosophies of black consciousness, the practices of the Black Arts Movement, and the politics of the New Latin American Cinema movement (Martin 2; Reid 10).
Essentially, this new generation of West Coast-based filmmakers rejected the imposed standards of Hollywood, viewing it as limiting to “their artistic and political vision of black life and experience” (Reid 10). By choosing to work within “the shadows of mainstream film,” the L.A. Rebellion created a “paradigm shift in the history of black independent filmmaking” (Reid 10).
According to Toni Cade Bambara, members of the L.A. Rebellion, who she calls “Black insurgents,” lived by an alternative set of filmmaking philosophies, including their belief that: “accountability to the community takes precedence over training for an industry that maligns and exploits, trivializes, and invisibilizes Black people” (qtd. in Rocchio, 173). Ultimately, their goals were to interrogate the conventions of mainstream cinema, to screen socially conscious content, and to consider alternatives that challenge past (mis)representations of Black individuals and communities (Rocchio 173).
In the words of one UCLA rebel, Haile Gerima:
… I couldn’t imagine how a white supremacist structure such as Hollywood, an industry of culture that has created havoc to all human beings, could be a base for me to peacefully tell my story and experiment. Hollywood didn’t have any obligation to tolerate my search in form. The only term that Hollywood accepts is the commercial mould. And once you cease to operate within that paradigm, the industry will reject all the reasons you have to tell a story (qtd. in Reid, 11).
In a previous blog post, I wrote about Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1984), and contemplated how her argument might apply to filmmaking.
Lorde argues: “… the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change ” (Lorde 112). Even years later, Lorde’s words seem to reverberate through the philosophies and practices of the L.A. Rebellion. Recognizing the limitations of Hollywood standards – narratively, aesthetically, and politically – the Black insurgents refused to conform to the rules of the ‘master’s house’.
What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).
Understanding that real change could not take place by using the very tools of a historically racist industry, the UCLA rebels opted films styles and narrative forms that were in line more with African, Latin American, Asian, and European filmmakers who similarly worked against the Hollywood grain (Reid 11). For example, using handheld cameras created a characteristic trembling movement, shooting in familiar, urban locations, favoring discontinuous editing and nonlinear narratives, and ‘bad’ lighting, are some of the distinctive characteristics of the black independent film movement (Reid 11). Like the Italian neorealists and the French New Wave auteurs, many of these style choices were brought about by financial restraints, but it was this gritty and experimental frugality that actually helped set the rebel’s films apart.
At the same time, it wasn’t just economics that influenced L.A. Rebellion filmmaking practices. Ultimately, every aesthetic and narrative choice had a political purpose. Even the traditional use of frame rates was contested. For example, as director of cinematography for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Arthur Jafa not only questioned “most generic film conventions,” but he also questioned “whether the standard of twenty-four-frames-per-second rate is kinesthetically the best for rendering the black experience” (Bambara xv).
Toni Cade Bambara offers a wonderfully astute analysis of a specific scene in Daughters that captures Jafa’s unconventional use of frame rates:
A particularly breathtaking moment begins with a deep focus shot of the beach. In the foreground are men in swallowtail coats and homburgs. Some are standing, others sitting. Two or three move across the picture plane, coattails buffeted by the breeze. They speak of the necessity of making right decisions for the sake of the children. Across a stretch of sand glinting in midground, the children play on the shore in the farground. Several men turn to look at the children. In turning, their shoulders, hips, arms, form an open ‘door’ through which the camera moves; maintaining a crisp focus as we approach the children. The frame rate changes just enough to underscore the children as the future. For a split second we seem to travel through time to a realm where children are eternally valid and are eternally the reason for right action. Then the camera pulls back, still maintaining crisp focus as we cross the sands again and reenter the present, the grownups’ conversation reclaiming our attention (Bambara xv).
With this, we see what kinds of stories can emerge if we actively challenge the conventions of filmmaking. By rejecting the ‘master’s tools,’ the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion helped conceive and create a cinematic landscape that worked to represent individuals and communities that existed beyond the borders of Hollywood.
When we call ourselves film-makers it’s because we wrote, produced, knew how to do the sound, operate the camera, to light, and when we took it into post [production] we’d edit our films physically, as well as mix the sound. We were totally immersed in it. We weren’t making films to be paid, or to satisfy someone else’s needs. We were making films because they were an expression of ourselves: what we were challenged by, what we wanted to change or redefine, or just dive into and explore (Julie Dash qtd. in Clark, n.p.)
Bambara, Toni Cade. Preface. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash, The New Press, 1992, pp. xi-xvi.
Clark, Ashley. “The LA Rebellion: when black filmmakers took on the world – and won.” The Guardian, 9 April 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/09/the-la-rebellion-when-black-film-makers-took-on-the-world-and-won.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.
Martin, Michael T. “‘I Do Exist’: From ‘Black Insurgent’ to Negotiating the Hollywood Divide – A Conversation with Julie Dash. ” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, https://search-proquest-com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/docview/222358084?accountid=12378.
Reid, Mark A. Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
Rocchio, Vincent F. Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-American Culture. Westview, 2000.
“The Story of the L.A. Rebellion.” UCLA Film & Television Archive, n.d., http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion.
© Lesley Butler, 2017 (lvb717 @ mun.ca)