27 July 2014

Redefining Black Independent Cinema

In August 1984, the Los Angeles Times first-string film critic, Charles Champlin, devoted his column to the subject 'A Black Film Bonanza Hollywood Ignored.' He--and the Los Angeles filmgoing audience--were discovering for the first time the wealth of Black cinema that had been produced in recent years. Beneath the facade of Hollywood'd glitter and Southern California's 'me' culture, Los Angeles is becoming a city of color. The largest ethnic group in its public schools is Latino, and it has one of the largest Asian populations in the US. It is a city with a long history of organizing for affirmative action in the workplace and schools. Los Angeles has been the source of some of the most pioneering and important independent works in recent years, much of which has been produced in these Third World communities.

The event which inspired Champlin's article was the First Annual African and Black American Film Festival at the Fox Theatre, which was held over for two extra weeks because of the unexpected audience response. The festival was something of a milestone for Los Angeles' Black independents. Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts and Charles Burnett's My Brother's Wedding, which have both been making successful rounds of international festivals, had their homecoming and United States theatrical premiere there. Also on the bill was Ashes and Embers by Washington, DC-based Haile Gerima, who, like Burnett and Woodberry, was trained in UCLA's film school. Another former classmate, Iranian filmmaker Rafigh Pooya (In Defense of the People), organized the showcase. He bought and refurbished the Fox Venice theatre with borrowed money, added a small cafe, and dedicated its programming to independent films from all over the world.

My Brother's Wedding and Bless Their Little Hearts are representative of the cooperative efforts of a group of Los Angeles-based Black independents who have worked together for years. Theirs is not a production cooperative in the same vein as Visual Communications, a group of Asian American Filmmakers that grew out of the Asian American movement. Rather, it is a network of directors--who also crew--that 'rallies each other's projects,' according to filmmaker Julie Dash (Four Women, Illusions). Among the films that have drawn from this pool are Alile Sharon Larkin's Your Children Come Back to You, Ben Caldwell's Babylon Is Falling, Barbara McCollough's work-in-progress Horace Taproot: Musical Griot, John Rier's Black Images from the Screen, as well as films by Dash, Woodberry, Burnett, Bernard Nicholas, and others. Added to this group are the many other Black independents working in Los Angeles - Carrol Blue (Varnette's World, Conversations with Roy de Carava), Roy Campanella, Jr. (Pass/Fail, The Thieves, Impressions of Joyce), Stan Lathan (Go Tell It on the Mountain), and Bill Duke (The Killing Floor). These filmmakers represent a major force in independent cinema that is changing the image of the Black experience on the screen.

During the 1970s, Hollywood discovered an antidote to its lagging box office in the Black youth market. The Stepin Fetchits were replaced by blaxploitation pimps and superdudes. (Thus one studio could re-edit Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess into the vampire movie Blood Couple). Needless to say, the project ideas of the new Black independents departs from such standard Hollywood fare. These independents are creating realistic glimpses of Black life--defined by Black characters, articulated by Black writers, and interpreted by Black actors and actresses. These filmmakers have embraced the breadth of the Black experience: families, women, artists, traditions, identity, political concerns, Africa. Dash and Larkin portray Black women who are neither street-smart whores nor background scenery to white plots, but complex characters who take control of their lives. Blue moves beyond Hollywood's fleeting interest in Black singing and dancing to document Black visual artists. Woodberry and Burnett explore men in relation to their families--and the families they portray don't consist of welfare mothers and troubled teenagers. 'The subject matter I work in doesn't lend itself to commercialism,' said Burnett, who wrote the screenplay for Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts, a portrayal of a family's struggle to cope with the father's loss of his job. 'If you go to producers and say, "I want to do a story about a Black man and his family," no one's interested. Dope, sex, drugs--that's what's marketable.

Some of these independent films also depart significantly from the typical Hollywood aesthetic of glossy photography and fast-paced editing. Burnett's Killer of Sheep, the story of a slaughterhouse worker, and Woodberry's Little Hearts eschew such commercial signposts for a leisurely, almost ultra-realistic pace, emphasis on character rather than plot, and black-and-white cinematography.

Many in the group began their careers at UCLA, during or following the Ethno-Communications period, the affirmative and social action program which trained a generation of Third World filmmakers, as profiled in The Independent (March 1984). There, they learned every aspect of the craft - and also confronted the lingering racism of the industry. Ben Caldwell remembers being one of two Blacks, out of hundreds of students, sitting through a film genre class screening of Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs by the noted animator Steven Kranz. 'Here was Kranz showing it and saying, "This is a tribute to Black people." And we said, "Hey, it isn't." But the rest of the class looked at us and said, "Ah, come on, you guys are always complaining." They actually booed us. I felt so humiliated.'

'Because of the UCLA method,' he explained, 'you crewed on other people's films. That carried over [when we left school], because we often don't have the funds to pay people. You do people a favor and they return it.'

Due to the realities of Hollywood where, as McCullough says, 'Racism is alive and well and keeping people from working,' the need for mutual assistance was reinforced. 'We all know how to do everything,' Dash pointed out. 'We all can shoot, do gaffing, electrical--right down to getting lunch. One minute you're a porter and the next minute you're a director of photography.' They crew for each other for little or no pay. Says McCullough, 'I think that, given our lack of resources, we do a hell of a lot, and our work says something.'

Los Angeles has no low-cost film equipment/facilities access centers like New York's Young Filmmakers/Film Video Arts or Minneapolis' Film in the Cities, so independents there must rent from high-priced rental houses used to dealing with huge Hollywood budgets (although the Long Beach Museum of Art and EZTV provide access for videomakers). Therefore, they help each other out by sharing access to equipment when they have it (although they do not own equipment themselves). Julie Dash - who has felt the double whammy of racism and sexism - must rent equipment through a male friend, because the rental houses wouldn't give her an open account. 'They told me I could only rent through him, even though I was the filmmaker, and he only needed a light meter once in a while.' the group has also developed networks of talented Black actors and actresses around Los Angeles. One young star who has emerged is Charles Burnett's niece Angie Burnett, who has appeared in Bless Their Little Hearts and Your Children Come Back to You.

Despite their accomplishments at UCLA (among others, Burnett won the coveted Louis B. Mayer prize of 10,000USD for best film, Larry Clark's Passing Through won first prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, and Gerima won a special award from the National Endowment for the Arts), the doors that opened for talented white students were often closed to them. 'You became and independent because you didn't have a choice,' said Burnett. 'You're either independent or you just don't make a film, period. No one was beating down my door to make a major motion picture.'

While Black independents in Los Angeles resist the pressures of Hollywood, they do respond to it in varying ways. 'When I first started, I had a desire to make films for special audiences,' explained Carroll Blue. 'When I worked for Jane Fonda at IPC Films, I got to see how to make films for a mass audience. Now I'm trying to reach that audience plus have my own special way of seeing things, like [Euzhan Palcy's] Sugar Cane Alley - that's the kind of film I'm trying to make. It's universal, but within a certain culture.' Blue's latest film, Conversations with Roy de Carva, which won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival, is a polished, highly visual, and tightly-cut document of the photographer's life which does not fail to discuss the racism that defined his career.

Caldwell, whose innovative Babylon Is Falling and I and I merge music and documentary imagery, regards the proximity to 'the beast of Hollywood' as a positive challenge. 'It makes independents who work on the periphery more intent and less compromising. It makes for good and different work.' Caldwell places the range of approaches in Los Angeles' Black film community in a historical context. 'The Black independents involved in media are rebuilding from the 1940s,' he explained, referring to the pre-war surge of Black cinema which had its peak during the 1920 Black renaissance, led by filmmakers Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson. 'There is a gap since then, a missing generation. So we are redefining Black film.'

The true measure of this process of redefinition has been in the work itself. Films by Los Angeles' Black filmmakers have been screened at major festivals and aired on television around the world, and have won numerous awards. For example, in 1981, the Berlin International Film Festival forsook prizes to any films in competition, but gave special recognition to Burnett's first feature Killer of Sheep.

But many group members realize they are now ready to move on. As young filmmakers developing their craft, it was easy to keep justifying the free shoots as a learning experience. But now they all have years of experience, and some have the added pressures of family. McCollough must work temp jobs (after a two-year stint at a special effects house), Woodberry works in the UCLA film school equipment room, Dash is staying home to write and core for her newborn baby. 'I'd like to do a film sometime where I'm paying people,' said McCollough. 'Working on eachother's films--it just can't happen anymore. We are professional people looking for work. We have to survive. We have projects of our own that we want to do.'

'We need an institution of a foundation,' said Dash, 'some kind of place where we can get equipment. It would be nice if we had a Black Filmmaker Foundation out here.' There have been several attempts to organize a more formal structure. After the Third World Cinema Conference at Howard University in 1981, a coalition of Third World filmmakers was launched in Los Angeles. According to Burnett, 'We met for awhile, but we're all filmmakers, so we had to kind of come and go, and the organization became secondary.' The Black filmmakers have tried over the years to form an organization, but have remained an ad hoc group coming together for shoots and around specific lobbying issues. In 1979, Caldwell refurbished a small house and turned it into a screening room with editing facilities and a writers' space in an effort to develop a creative home for local independents. It lasted until 1981, when his marriage fell apart, and he left for Washington DC to teach film at Howard (he has since returned to Los Angeles). 'When I had my place it was used to showcase peoples' work,' Caldwell explained. 'If people want critical analysis now, they have to get a screening room from AFI or UCLA. But there's a lack of consistency. Black independents need a place of their own.' Caldwell is discussing the possibility of reviving the Third World coalition idea with Chicano and Asian American filmmakers. And Rafigh Pooya's new Fox International holds a great potential for providing a center for local independents. He plans to hold seminars and bring filmmakers in to meet their public as well as give theatrical runs to independent films.

'My personal belief,' says Caldwell, 'is that this whole group of us has just started - most of have only done three or four works on our own. As we're developing the network is developing. We're just starting to have enough blood to pump into the system.'

[This is a slightly edited version of an article entitled 'Nothing Lights a Fire Like a Dream Deferred' by Renee E. Tajima and Tracey Willard that was originally published in The Independent (Vol. 7, No. 10, November 1984, pp. 18-21). At the time of its writing, Renee Tajima was an associate editor of The Independent and Tracey Willard was a writer and poet in Los Angeles.]

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