Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
Starting in the late 1960s, UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television began actively recruiting African American students. The work and community they created through the early 1980s became known as the “L.A. Rebellion.” It was the first concentrated flowering of independent cinema that reflected the realities—rather than stereotypes—of African American life. Now, some 40 years later, the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time is a retrospective of more than 50 films from this formative period. (See Susan King’s feature for more details.)
The series, which continues through Dec. 17, includes important feature films like Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” and Larry Clark’s “Passing Through.” But it also includes several programs of short films. While less celebrated, these collections provide—in the same time as it takes to watch a feature—a broader sampling of works by different filmmakers, some of whom were working in a highly experimental mode. They attest to the archive’s efforts to present as full a picture as possible of the movement.
I attended a shorts program that featured works by Don Amis, O.Funmilayo Makarah, Carroll Parrott Blue (with Kristy H.A. Kang), Jacqueline Frazier, Shirikiana Aina, and S. Torriano Berry, all of whom participated in a post-screening discussion. Their works, most produced while they were students at UCLA, ran the gamut from documentary to narrative to experimental, but were united in their searing examinations of the effect of racism and poverty on education, housing, and self-determination.
The program began with a trenchant reminder of how much things have changed. Amis’ “Ujamii Uhuru Schule Community Freedom School,” shot in 1974, packs a lot of radical thought into its 9 minutes of documentary footage of a black nationalist elementary school in South L.A. It’s striking to see rows of children giving the black power salute, or chanting together in Swahili. But even more potent are the voiceovers of the teachers, who explain, clearly and convincingly, how the values and history that American kids learn in mainstream schools are inherently disempowering for black children, and how black people must educate their own, instigating and propagating their own values.
The film makes you wonder what happened to the kids who went to that school. When asked during the discussion what he thought life would be like for African Americans if such schools had survived, Amis replied that they wouldn’t have survived, because they were “too radical.” However, he added, education today “is keeping people ignorant. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing for the capitalist system.”
Makarah's “Define,” from 1988, explores similar tensions in more individual terms. It combines images of three women from different ethnic backgrounds with poetic voiceovers that explore the conflict between self-realization and assimilation. Also experimental in nature is a video adaption of Blue and Kang’s interactive 2003 DVD-ROM piece, “The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing.” It blends personal recollections, interviews, and photographs with a tour through the historically black neighborhoods of Houston, where Blue grew up. Frazier’s “Shipley Street” from 1981, is a more straightforward narrative about an African American girl caught between a racist Catholic school and her parents’ desire to give her a better education. And Berry’s “Rich,” from 1982, is a kind of proto-"Boyz n the Hood," exploring the decisions an African American man and his mother must negotiate on the day of his high school graduation.
All of these pieces take us back to a time when questions of self-determination and empowerment were foremost on the agenda for people of color in the U.S. We don’t talk about these issues with the same conviction anymore. But maybe we should. Shirikiana Aina’s powerful documentary on the gentrification of late-1970’s Washington D.C. makes it painfully obvious how little has actually changed. “Brick by Brick” juxtaposes frank interviews with black residents being evicted en masse from their homes, with jarring montages contrasting D.C.’s grand monuments with the dilapidated, overcrowded housing in which most of its residents lived. It's a wrenching record of the ways in which racism and poverty are ingrained in our capitalist system.
It also, sadly, feels entirely of this moment. The difference is that the displaced residents of 1970’s D.C. were well aware of the larger forces calling the shots around them—they organized protests and some even got together to buy the buildings in which they lived. By contrast, today’s protestors, whether the rioters in Great Britain, or the occupiers of Wall Street, L.A., or wherever, have yet to put together a coherent platform. We know something is wrong—we just have lost the ideological certainty or unity to explain it. The films of the “L.A. Rebellion” may come across as “too radical," but at least their makers could say exactly what they were fighting for.
Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 206-8013, through December 17. Check web site for upcoming screening dates and times: www.cinema.ucla.edu
Photos, from top: "Ujamii Uhuru Schule Community Freedom School" (1974), directed by Don Amis.
S. Torriano Berry as the title character in "Rich" (1982), directed by S. Torriano Berry.
"Brick by Brick" (1981), directed by Shirikiana Aina.
Credit: All photos courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive.