Shadow & Act | Jean Camara

From Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” – a landmark of the L.A. Rebellion shot in and around Watts in the early ’70s. (UCLA Film & Television Archive)

From Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” – a landmark of the L.A. Rebellion shot in and around Watts in the early ’70s. (UCLA Film & Television Archive)

Picking up on Tambay’s “Notes on Working Towards a Fanboy/FanGirl Culture in Black Independent Cinema” piece published on this blog in May, since reading that piece, I’ve been pondering how I could contribute to the idea of creating a “fanboy/fangirl culture” in not just black independent cinema, but black cinema overall globally. And one of the ideas I keep coming back to is that of film movements.

After a month or so of reading up on movements and thinking about the idea of black film movements, several questions come up which I don’t necessarily have the answers for. Maybe you can assist.

First, obvious questions that come up are, how do you define a movement, and how do you start a film movement. I think we all know what I mean when I talk about a film movement – the several film movements that have existed since the dawn of cinema, starting with what I believe was the first “movement” on record, which was the German Expressionist (or German Expressionism) movement, of the 20s; followed by the Italian Neorealists, of the 40s and on. And then you had Nouvelle Vague (The French New Wave) movement of the 50s and 60s (probably the most famous), and then Cinema Novo, the Brazilian movement for a new cinema in the 1960’s; you had the blaxploitation films of the 70s, but I’d say that blaxploitation was more of a genre of cinema than an actual movement; and of course you had the L.A. Rebellion of the late 70s/early 80s, also known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers, the only black film movement on record (although it was made up of a somewhat cosmopolitan group of people, not just black Americans).

Does a movement become a movement when someone outside the movement, whether a journalist or film critic, or whatever, gives it some credence, and eventually a name, launching it into the public atmosphere for consumption? Is that when it becomes a movement, because someone notices some trend, and tells the rest of us that it’s a “movement”?

Because I would argue that there’ve been “movements” over the years that never got the attention that many of these others did, for one reason or another.

One could certainly say that Oscar Micheaux was a one-man movement, but I don’t believe anyone ever coined a term for his efforts, and those he worked with. He and Noble Johnson and his brother George Johnson of the Lincoln Motion Picture company of the early 1900s, beginning around WWI, were certainly on a mission mostly in response to the negative portrayals as well as the blatant lack of representation of black people in America at the time by the white industry power structure. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company only lasted roughly 5 years. But Oscar Micheaux went on to make some forty-four feature-length films between 1919 and 1948. I’m actually surprised that no one has made a feature-length film about Oscar Micheaux, probably the most prolific filmmaker of his time, and one could even say, maybe the first independent filmmaker ever! I have read on this website that there is a biopic in development, being made independently by filmmaker Jamie Walker. There has been a documentary or two, but he deserves a biopic. I would watch that film.

More recent movements include the Dogme 95 group, a collective of film directors founded in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1995, which I felt was actually more of a publicity stunt than anything else; and there was also a group of young white filmmakers that were labeled the Mumblecore movement, characterized by ultra-low budget productions, focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors; films that are the antithesis of what became of the traditional American indies of the late ’90s, and that were inspired by people like Cassavetes and cinema verite in a sense. In fact, one could even make a connection between this group of twenty-somethings and the other movements that were offspring of the Italian Neorealist movement, like the L.A. Rebellion. Because what you have with the Mumblecore group is essentially a group of young filmmakers with similar influences and objectives, collectively working on each other’s films – acting, cinematography, sound, editing, etc… You look at the credits of many of the films from this movement, and you’ll find a lot of the same names in varied positions. You had a similar kind of working structure with the L.A. Rebellion, with Charles Burnett, for example, serving as cinematographer for Haile Gerima’s BUSH MAMA, and also wrote the screenplay for Billy Woodberry’s BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS, and edited Julie Dash’s film ILLUSIONS – all contemporaries and films of the L.A. Rebellion.

One thing that I have always come back to is that many, if not all of these movements didn’t necessarily start intentionally, or consciously as film movements. Those within the group didn’t sit down together one day and say to each other, “hey, let’s start a film movement, and we’ll call it *this* and we’ll come up with a list of characteristics specific to our movement, and we’ll package it and sell it, and hope the audiences will eat it up and digest it gladly.” The only group that really did anything like that was the Dogme 95 crew with Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and others, who actually created something that they called “the vow of chastity,” which was a list of rules and regulations that for any film/filmmaker considering being a part of the movement had to abide by. But I can’t say if much really became of the movement, and if the films of the movement will go down in history as seminal, the way films from other movements from decades prior, have. And I also think that going about it the way the Dogme guys did is somewhat pretentious and egotistical, and may even have an adverse effect on those whom you are targeting as your audience; because, if you look closely at the Dogme 95 movement, it’s pretty much an offspring of the Italian Neorealist movement, and borrows much of its style and substance from that movement, notably their political themes, the frequent use of non-professional actors, location shooting, and handheld camera work, etc… So to actually make the claim as they did that theirs was the beginning of a new film movement, almost dismisses the efforts of those who came before them, and who influenced them incredibly.

Going back to the L.A. Rebellion, even Charles Burnett was quoted as saying he and his fellow filmmakers did not in fact consider themselves part of a “rebellion” or “movement” as such, and that it was merely a radical time in American history, and he describes the atmosphere at UCLA at the time (which is where the members of the rebellion met and grew) as one of camaraderie in radical thought. He called UCLA an “anti-Hollywood” environment at the time, as opposed to USC, which is where filmmakers like George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis – names that became synonymous with the Hollywood blockbuster – were educated. Burnett even also said that he dislikes the use of the label L.A. Rebellion because: “It wasn’t a ‘school’ of black filmmakers, or a conscious effort;” implying that, for those within the group, there was no intentional act of creation. It just was. And it wasn’t until years later that the “Rebellion” label was placed upon them by Clyde Taylor, then a professor of Africana Studies at New York University.

Another question that I keep coming back to is, do movements ever die? One could make a case for the French New Wave still being alive today, or even the Italian Neorealist movement still carrying on its mission. When those of us who have come after the originators of any of these movements adopt the sensibilities and aesthetics of the prior movements, are we in essence creating our own movement, or are we just joining an already existing movement? Godard is still alive and well today, and still making films. He’s probably more of what might be called an “avant-gardist,” but the original anti-establishment, anti-capitalism, politically-driven themes that were pervasive in many of his earlier works are still very much evident in his most recent films; at their root, they challenged and still do challenge the conventions of Hollywood cinema. And Charles Burnett is still making films today, although certainly not in high numbers like some of his counterparts, but still driven by political motives, employing some of the same technical aesthetics as he did back in the 70s. They’ll likely continue to receive critical acclaim, but will undoubtedly die at the box office, if they are even so lucky to make it to the theaters.

Thinking further about identifying a black film movement (or movements) today, is it that we need a specific cause to fight for, or rebel against, much like the L.A. Rebellion group, who organized to produce politically, and you could even say aesthetically rebellious films, which were principally aimed at challenging negative Hollywood presentation of black characters and culture? I remember something that was said on this blog a while back that stirred readers – that we’re literally in a crisis; that black American cinema today is in a crisis, and is in need of emergency resuscitation. Maybe not so much in 2016. But if you agree with that – that black cinema is in crisis mode and in dire need of revival – then we could say that this alone is a cause worth fighting for, and worth rebelling against the status quo for, if it is that we need to identify a reason for existing.

We might identify social, political and artistic influences on the work of this movement that includes the Civil Rights Movement, the writings of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, as well as the Third World cinema emerging from Africa, Cuba, as well as the Brazilian Cinema Novo, for example.

So if we are to detail a contemporary black film movement, one question we should ask ourselves is if a movement already exists that we can simply join, or maybe revive, or make more evident just by claiming it, and, in essence, bringing attention to it so that it could then be given the necessary press it deserves, much like many of these other movements. Because many of us – and by “us” I mean black people – are making films, and doing so regularly. Maybe we’re not getting the attention we deserve, but we’re out there, doing what we must to survive, some of us biding time, hoping that we can build up enough of a resume to attract attention. But the assumption here is that someone on the outside has to give credibility to it, and I just don’t know if that has to be the case. However, as I said, there are several of us with similar sensibilities, similar objectives, even influences, making films today, or at least, writing with the intent to go into production at some time in the near future. We exist, and the Internet makes connecting even easier today. We have to find each other; and maybe that happens organically, without much artificial interference from any of us. But, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out like-minded artists to collaborate with and build something, without the eventual goal of creating a film movement.

In my city alone (Austin, TX), I know a handful of black filmmakers who have a similar awareness and responsiveness as I do, and I’m in constant contact with a few of them, each of us working on our individual projects, but not really connecting with each other creatively or really in any other collective fashion. But that’s where it begins really, I think.

To wrap it all up, my point here is just to get some dialogue going as we work to grasp, qualify and quantify the progress black cinema has made (not just in the USA, because any consideration of this must investigate the entire diaspora) in recent years, with the rise of a small handful who are seemingly churning out work, and identify any similarities and trends, whether on a macro or micro level, that could be the basis of pronouncing a new film movement, or maybe several black film movements in the present day. It is work that I intend to do myself, really for my own knowledge, but if others appreciate it, that will obviously be just fine. This is just my introduction that will lead to future posts on this subject to come, as I share my research and understandings.

I still have a lot of reading and watching to do; much of the writing I’ve come across on this subject is focused on the past, and very little on the possibilities of the present. That doesn’t mean others haven’t written on the subject of identifying present-day black film movements, and I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to assume that. So please share anything that you’ve read or watched. The work may have already been done and I’m just not aware of it.

About every decade over the last 40 years, it seems like there are proclamations of some new black cinema renaissance (although it’s an occurrence that’s mostly relegated to the USA). Yet there’s really no continuity in each case, until the next time there’s a surge in activity within the realm of black cinema. I think this is all part of the kind of work that needs to be done in inspiring the fanboy/fangirl culture in black cinema today that some of us have talked about that might help sustain these surges going forward.