In American movie history, as written by mainstream culture, Spike Lee sprang out of nowhere with “She’s Gotta Have It,” singlehandedly establishing black independent film without any antecedents. “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” a month-long series of screenings and other events showcasing 20 years of black filmmaking, which begins in Atlanta today, emphatically disproves that notion.
And we are not talking “blaxploitation” — flicks such as “Shaft,” “Foxy Brown” or “Blacula.” The series takes its name from a black independent cinema movement at the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California at Los Angeles, begun in the late 1960s by a group of mostly African-American students who were at UCLA as part of a diversity initiative that followed the 1965 Watts riot and other social unrest.
“Nobody ever talks about true black independent cinema,” says Alessandra Raengo, a professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University, which is co-sponsoring the series with Emory University and the Atlanta Film Festival, in association with the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
“They were making these films in the shadow of Hollywood, in L.A., with expectations at the time that [black filmmakers] would follow a certain generic imprint,” Raengo says. Instead, these young directors were largely influenced by work far from Southern California. “The most recognizable reference would be Italian Neorealism,” Raengo says.
Some of the movies are documentaries, but many are narratives that try to nail down the look, sounds and feeling of life on the West Coast in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s.
“It’s this really interesting contamination between realism and the artistic avant-garde,” Raengo says. “Every film is different, obviously. [The filmmakers] had to find an aesthetic form to tell their own stories. They produced the work entirely independently, and that’s key. The films are unlike anything else.”
The series, which runs through November 24, includes free screenings of 36 films and opportunities to meet some of the filmmakers and discuss their work, with them and with other Atlanta film lovers. “Liquid Blackness: A Research Project on Blackness and Aesthetics,” coordinated by Raengo, will enrich the “L.A. Rebellion” programming with panels, conversations and Q&A sessions.
“We are facilitating conversations after the screenings,” she says. “We really want to make this a people’s event, a city-wide event.” For a rundown of these conversations, click here.
Opening night will feature screenings of Robert Wheaton’s “A Little Off Mark” (1986) and Charles Burnett’s “My Brother’s Wedding” (1983) and a panel including filmmaker Zeinabu irene Davis, a UC-San Diego professor, and GSU professors Akinyele Umoja, Makungu Akinyela and Michele Prettyman Beverly.
The October 26 showing of “Spirits of Rebellion,” Davis’ documentary-in-progress about the film movement, should be a good introduction to the series. Davis will introduce the film and answer questions.
Some of the featured directors — such as Burnett (“Killer of Sheep” and “To Sleep With Anger”), Julie Dash (“Four Women” and “Daughters of the Dust”) and Haile Gerima (“Bush Mama” and “Sankofa”) — may already be familiar to adventurous film lovers. Most of this work, though, has been just about impossible to see.
And it’s about to become that way again. Atlanta is the final stop of the tour, and UCLA has no plans to disseminate the films.