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Rise Again: The L.A. Rebellion


By Brandon Harris, Photos by Everard Williams

Published Oct 1, 2011 12:00 AM


(left) Watts' Charles Burnett made Killer of Sheep, the most widely known and revered of the L.A. Rebellion films. (right) Compton's Jamaa Fanaka wrote and directed the indie classic Penitentiary and its two sequels.

They came to Westwood to tell authentic stories about the black experience. They were adamantly anti-Hollywood. The movies they made were exceptional. But they've been all but forgotten. Now, in a wide-ranging celebration that includes a major exhibition of their work, the UCLA Film & Television Archive highlights the images and enduring impact of the student filmmakers who collectively came to be known as L.A. Rebellion.

L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema

UCLA Film & Television Archive's screenings and lectures series feature L.A. Rebellion works. The exhibition includes about 40 films and videos, most of which have never been screened theatrically.

For background on the series, read Cinematic: Remember the Rebels.

Oct. 7—Dec. 17. Billy Wilder Theater. Tickets: $9; free to all UCLA students; $8 for other students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Association members. For more information, visit or call (310) 206-FILM.

Over 40 years ago, a small group of ambitious African and African-American student filmmakers came to UCLA. It was a time of turbulence and protests, and Westwood, like campuses across the country, was a staging ground for social change.

The new Bruins, who collectively came to be known as "L.A. Rebellion," were bursting with stories to tell, and hopes, and dreams, and passion. Many of them were angry, and all were determined to bear witness to truth.

"This group of former UCLA students constitutes an historic movement of black filmmakers who are considered a phenomenon," declares UCLA Film & Television Archive Director Jan-Christopher Horak, who is co-editing a book about L.A. Rebellion with UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television Assistant Professor Allyson Field and Northwestern University Assistant Professor Jacqueline Stewart. "To my knowledge, it is the only movement of filmmakers that has come out of a film school."

The L.A. Rebellion films never made it to mainstream American theaters. They didn't get ad campaigns, or painted buses, or press tours. Few of them, in fact, were ever distributed in the U.S., although they have been celebrated at international film festivals abroad.

But that is about to change in a big way.

This fall, the Archive is presenting a retrospective of the group's movies called "L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema" at the Billy Wilder Theater in the UCLA Hammer Museum. The exhibition is only one part of a huge effort that includes film preservation, digital transfer of prints, oral histories, the book, even efforts to get the films distribution deals in the U.S.

The exhibition is part of Pacific Standard Time, the sweeping, citywide celebration of postwar art in Los Angeles. "We're grateful to all the funders who've made the Archive's L.A. Rebellion project possible and especially appreciate the Getty Foundation's leadership in spearheading the groundbreaking Pacific Standard Time initiative," says Teri Schwartz '71, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television.

Camera Ready

In 1967, a young man from Vicksburg, Miss., named Charles Burnett arrived at UCLA to pursue a degree in film after previously studying electrical engineering at Los Angeles Community College. He was soft-spoken and gentlemanly, hardly what you would call a revolutionary. And yet he would become arguably the most visible member of L.A. Rebellion, an essential element in the nucleus of a group of politically engaged black film students who wanted to build a foundation for an oppositional black cinema from the ground up. The group includes notable filmmakers such as Haile Gerima '72, M.F.A. '76 (Bush Mama), Larry Clark M.F.A. '81 (Passing Through), Billy Woodberry M.F.A. '82 (Bless Their Little Hearts), Ben Caldwell M.F.A. '77 (I and I), Alile Sharon Larkin M.F.A. '82 (A Different Image), Julie Dash M.F.A. '85 (Daughters of the Dust) and Jamaa Fanaka '73, M.F.A. '79 (Welcome Home, Brother Charles).

"There have never been that many black filmmakers at UCLA before or since," claims Fanaka, the only person ever to write, finance, produce, direct and acquire international distribution for three feature films made as part of curricula at a film school. "They really were the halcyon days of black filmmakers and black filmmaking at the school."

Burnett '69, M.F.A. '77, who is now 67 and lives in Los Angeles, recalls a UCLA that was much less diverse than it is today, leading to an increased solidarity among the minority students. "At UCLA at the time," he says, "there were so few people of color, if you saw a person of color across campus, they could be way on the other side, and you would wave. You'd give a signal, whatever it is. It was that kind of thing, if you were passing by, you always spoke. Nowadays you look at someone on North Campus and say ‘hi' and they look at you like you're crazy."

Initially, he wasn't as focused on activism as some of the others. "I was aware of what was going on politically, but I was focused on having a job and trying to make movies about my community," confides Burnett. He held several jobs in order to afford school, including one at the downtown library and another at a talent agency. Still, as the late '60s wore on, the film department became more politicized, including a general strike after the Kent State shooting in 1970. But Burnett was more interested in what was happening in his community in Watts, the South L.A. neighborhood where the most iconic of the series of urban rebellions that swept American cities during that era took place.

"After the civil rights movement happened, you had this large wave of middle-class black people moving out," he explains. "People were able to go into different areas and shop and cross the barriers that were closed to them at one point. Downtown Watts was a mecca back then. You had different black businesses all over. It was like being in Harlem. It was a really fun place. Then, all of a sudden, that all evaporated."

But if Burnett wanted to tell the story of what was going on in his wounded community, he certainly wasn't going to do it with the help of Hollywood.

A Different Take

Although it was more established in Los Angeles than in the rest of the country, film academia was a relatively new thing back then. UCLA, CalArts and USC were among the first major collegiate institutions in the United States to offer film as a major, with top-tier eastern universities such as NYU and Columbia following suit.

While many within the ivory tower saw these new programs as mere staffing and recruitment adjuncts for the Hollywood studio system, for many of the students arriving at UCLA then, filmmaking was a venue through which to enact social and political change and to represent their communities honestly.

But although they were right on its doorstep, working in Hollywood was something these filmmakers were unequivocally uninterested in.

After the runaway financial success of Melvin Van Peebles' genuinely incendiary independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Parks' slick, Warner Bros.-financed private detective tale Shaft (1971), the major studios were busy churning out crime-and-revenge "Blaxploitation" pictures, cheaply made thrillers by mostly white writers and directors that couched what little political content they had in traditional form and often focused on stereotypical aspects of contemporary African-American urban life. The rhetoric and style of these films were anathema to what most of the work coming out of L.A. Rebellion was about.

To the students who would become L.A. Rebellion, in fact, what was going on in the country demanded an anti-Hollywood approach to filmmaking. "We were trying to make authentic African-American films," explains Julie Dash. "We were not trained to roll into the Hollywood system at all; that was never our intention."

America, these artists believed, was at a crossroads, the skies of liberty darkening on seemingly every domestic front, even as the civil rights movement entered its penultimate stage. Just a few years before, on the heels of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the arrests of an allegedly drunk black motorist named Marquette Frye and several of his family members had sparked the Watts Riots. Four days of unrest led to 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries and 4,000 arrests. All told, $40 million in property was destroyed; more than 600 buildings were burnt to the ground.

One exception to this rule was Fanaka, who became an urban icon for his ferociously independent films (his parents put their life savings into the movies he made in Westwood), but who is more of an acolyte of classic Hollywood cinema than the other L.A. Rebellion members. He cites William Wyler as his favorite director and famous '50s films High Noon, The Blob and Them as references.

The charged zeitgeist of the period gave the Rebellion movie-makers plenty to talk about, something they did with gusto. Burnett remembers that they would "argue day and night over what a black film was." Larry Clark recalls fierce arguments about the nature of black cinema and its place in the world.

Was it simply a film by a black filmmaker, or did the film have to have some other, larger relevance to the black community?

"We had raging debates," he says. "Before North Campus was there, there was this place called the Gypsy Wagon. That's where we would meet. Talking about film, all the time, every day. Talking about politically what was going on in the world, in the United States."

"Westwood didn't have the kind of gentrification it has today," adds Ntongela Masilela '72, M.A. '74, Ph.D. '77, who studied at UCLA alongside many of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers and has written about their work. "So we'd go to places in Westwood and stay out from 8 o'clock until 3 in the morning, talking about so many things."

Masilela notes that the divisions in the L.A. Rebellion were mostly based on the various backgrounds of the individuals involved. For example, while Haile Gerima's thesis film Bush Mama is clearly indebted to a Marxist reading of the African-American inner-city plight, Larry Clark's jazz-inflected Passing Through (1977) is a film that the director, now a film professor at San Francisco State, claims "wasn't made for release, it was made for revolution," and is steeped in late-period black nationalism.

"In the '70s there was a lot going on, the war in Vietnam, African liberation movements, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea," says Clark, who cites his cousin, jazz musician Sonny Clark, as an inspiration for his film about a saxophonist and his band struggling to start a record company in spite of the ruthless tactics of music insiders trying to maintain a monopoly on the business.

By far the most widely known and revered L.A. Rebellion film was Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977). The story of a physically and emotionally exhausted slaughterhouse worker and his family, who attempt to live with dignity amid crushing poverty, the film is widely regarded as one of the most significant first features in the history of American cinema.

Killer of Sheep, made for less than $10,000, was Burnett's graduate thesis. Featuring a cast made up mainly of Burnett's neighborhood friends, much of the film was staged on Watts' pockmarked streets, around and within decimated buildings next to empty, overgrown lots.

Despite all the accolades it has received, including a Critic's Award at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, the film had long been resigned to obscurity. Selected for preservation by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry more than a decade ago, Killer of Sheep wasn't released commercially in the U.S. until 2007 due to problems clearing music rights for several of the Etta James, Paul Robeson, George Gershwin, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Dinah Washington songs used on its soundtrack. It was released on DVD through Milestone Films in late 2007.

A few L.A. Rebellion filmmakers did make films within the Hollywood system. Burnett made To Sleep with Anger at Goldwyn and The Glass Shield at Miramax; he and Dash now frequently direct for television. As an independent filmmaker, Fanaka wrote and directed Penitentiary (1979), the story of a young boxer wrongly sent to prison that was the top-grossing independent film of that year. Fanaka also wrote and directed two sequels.

Others found careers in academia. Woodberry teaches at CalArts and Gerima, who recently won a Special Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival for his 2008 film Teza, teaches at Howard University.

The Credits Go To Everyone

The filmmakers frequently collaborated during and after their time at UCLA. Clark appeared in Burnett's student short film The Horse. Burnett wrote Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts and was a cinematographer on Bush Mama and Larkin's A Different Image. He was also one of three camera operators on Clark's Passing Through, for which Dash was a sound mixer.

They also shared performers from film to film, creating a roving troupe of often nonprofessional actors. Barbara O. Jones, who starred in Gerima's Bush Mama and student short Child of Resistance, went on to appear in Dash's Diary of an African Nun and Daughters of the Dust. Cora Lee Day also appeared in Bush Mama and Daughters of the Dust, as well as Passing Through. Kaycee Moore, memorable as Stan's wife in Killer of Sheep, had significant roles in both Bless Their Little Hearts and Dust.

Vision Quest

The Archive's L.A. Rebellion project itself could be a movie. A lot can be lost in 40 years, especially films and filmmakers who have been all but forgotten or who aren't even making movies anymore. The Archive has managed to identify about 50 former students making films during the period. The films themselves, though, are another story. Some are being restored. Others were transferred to digital formats. Many required above-and-beyond efforts to recover. And others are hopelessly lost.

"You can't just call up a distributor and get this material," says Horak, who spent a whole weekend cleaning out a shed in Compton belonging to Jamaa Fanaka in 90-degree heat, looking for the only surviving print of one of the filmmaker's movies. Horak found it on the concrete floor of the shed.

Another L.A. Rebellion filmmaker, Melvonna Ballenger M.F.A. '94, died in 2003 "and all of her belongings were tossed," recalls Horak. "She made a wonderful film that was shown internationally called Rain ... It was in such bad shape we had to bake it [in a special oven] in order to make a digital transfer."

In some cases, prints had to be pried away from film labs. One lab said it had lost the original negatives to Passing Through, but when an Archive preservationist went to see for himself, he found the negatives. At a different lab, the same preservationist found original materials for another Clark film as well, As Above, So Below.

Yet another film was held hostage by a lab for 12 years due to an argument over how much was still owed. Horak, who had worked with the lab in the past, managed to resolve the issue and liberate the picture.

"These filmmakers have been unjustly forgotten and ignored," concludes Horak. "We're doing this to put them back into film history — and keep them there."