L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

TIFF Cinematheque celebrates Black History Month with a retrospective of films that define the important, but little known, cinematic movement the L.A. Rebellion.

In 1969 Life magazine photographer turned filmmaker Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree became the first African-American-made film to be released theatrically across the U.S. It was a momentous occasion and its success allowed Parks to go on to make Shaft, one of the most influential films of the 70’s. Daughters of the Dust, by Julie Dash, was the first film to be made and theatrically distributed in the U.S. by a black woman. But that didn’t happen until 1992.

In the late sixties, a nascent black film collective on the UCLA campus had taken the social temperature and reflected it in their pioneering films. They focused on contemporary experiences of African Americans, especially in Los Angeles. The university had begun an initiative to bring black students to the population in hopes of making it more diverse and authentic. Young Africans and African Americans were recruited, and with them, artists who took their first steps in filmmaking. They gained stature locally, then nationally. Theirs became an alternative cinema to Hollywood’s limited black film portrayals and the conservative studio system. The UCLA movement became known as the L.A. Rebellion.

The explosion of black film at that time coincided with the Civil Rights movement when the wounds of the Watts Riot, the racist murders in the southern U.S., and the assassination of Martin Luther King were still fresh. The films were political, radical, angry, outside and vibrant, a growing show of strength by idealistic young idealists.

Author and academic Chris Norton, who identified the brightest talents of the movement as Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Julie Dash, wrote that it was profoundly inspired by “ black nationalism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, anti-war rhetoric and Marxist doctrine, these filmmakers sought an aesthetic and mode of representation and narration that spoke to the realities of black existence and the state of the black family under a hegemonic rule of white racism and subordination.”

Julie Dash launches the TIFF retrospective as the special guest in the “In Conversation … “ series, followed by a screening of her landmark film Daughters of the Dust on January 31. Dash studied under William Freidkin and Ján Kadár, among others, and was and remains an influential artistic and social figure.

Dash began work on Daughters of the Dust in 1978 and released it through a conventional studio in 1992, a first for a black female filmmaker. It looks at three generations of Gullah women on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, who confront their slave past. Dash’s father was Gullah. Dash’s Diary of an African Nun and Four Women are also scheduled to screen as part of the retrospective.

On February 2, TIFF Artist Director Cameron Bailey introduces Charles Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977), a neorealist film set in Watts which wasn’t released until 2007 due to music copyright issues. Its unveiling created a sensation; the film has achieved a kind of cult status. Killer of Sheep offers a slice of life of a slaughterhouse worker without a conventional plot, narrative or arc.

On February 10 L.A. Rebellion curator Jacqueline Stewart discusses the movement and the recent restoration of four important shorts.

Among the L.A. Rebellion features screenings are Daydream Therapy, My Brother’s Wedding, A Little Off Mark, Pocketbook, Day in the Life of Willie Faust, Passing Through, When It Rains, Compensation, Dark Exodus, Daughters of the Dust, and Killer of Sheep. Check the full list of titles, including fourteen shorts, with descriptions at tiff.net.

L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from January 31 to February 19.

Top image: A scene from Killer of Sheep. Courtesy TIFF.

Anne Brodie

About Anne Brodie

Anne Brodie is a freelance film reporter and critic.