The LA rebellion: when black film-makers took on the world – and won
‘It wasn’t trendy,” says Julie Dash down the line from South Carolina. “We were the broke nerds wearing $2 jelly shoes because we put all our money into film-making.” She chuckles, warm and husky. In the late 60s and early 70s, Dash was a key member of the UCLA movement that spawned a host of pioneering African-American and African film-makers. This group and its work was dubbed the “LA rebellion” in 1986 by cultural historian Clyde Taylor – a label that stuck so firmly, Tate Modern has seen fit to use it for its retrospective on new black cinema.
The Rebellion flourished on rocky ground. In the wake of the Watts riots of 1965 – and the unrest that followed the 1969 shoot-out on the UCLA campus – several students persuaded the university to launch an ethnographic studies programme responsive to local communities of colour. The films that followed, by the likes of Dash and Charles Burnett, came out of a consciousness of anti-Vietnam and black-lib struggles, and were forged in solidarity with anti-colonial movements from around the world, such as Brazil’s Cinema Novo and the Argentinian Grupo Cine Liberación. The irony was, of course, that this hotbed of unorthodox movie-making was situated 15 miles from Hollywood’s dream factory – the “belly of the beast”, as Dash dubs it.
UCLA proved a remarkably effective training ground, recalls Dash. “When we call ourselves film-makers it’s because we wrote, produced, knew how to do the sound, operate the camera, to light, and when we took it into post [production] we’d edit our films physically, as well as mix the sound. We were totally immersed in it. We weren’t making films to be paid, or to satisfy someone else’s needs. We were making films because they were an expression of ourselves: what we were challenged by, what we wanted to change or redefine, or just dive into and explore.”
Dash likens the group’s dynamic to that of a jazz band, where instruments would be swapped freely but the rhythm would remain steady. Film-makers frequently worked on each other’s projects: the ferocious Bush Mama (1975), for example, an urban, feminist drama by Ethiopian-born, Chicago-raised Haile Gerima, was co-shot by Burnett.
While Burnett’s back-catalogue – including his thesis film Killer of Sheep – is now relatively well known, UCLA’s archiving initiative has recently snowballed into a huge effort to shed further light on the lost or abandoned contributions of the first generations of black UCLA film students. The beefed-up programme has toured the US, but the Tate Modern hosts its European bow, giving UK audiences a first chance to see restored versions of (not that) Larry Clark’s scorching jazz drama Passing Through (1977), and the late Jamaa Fanaka’s confrontational 1975 thriller Welcome Home, Brother Charles (later retitled Soul Vengeance, and the closest the LA Rebellion ever came to embracing Blaxploitation aesthetics).
Season curator George Clark is especially keen to highlight the work of Ben Caldwell, who arrived at UCLA having served in Vietnam and whose work – kaleidoscopic swirls of rapid-cut imagery and black revolutionary poetry – prefigures Afrofuturism. Caldwell later founded the Kaos network community arts centre in Leinert Park, LA. “His idea,” explains Clark, “was that artists should have the same role in the community as doctors or lawyers, they should be there on the street: you should be able to drop in and see them, interact with them.” The programme also includes key later works, including Dash’s hypnotic Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first feature by an African American woman to be commercially released in the US.
These days, Dash, at 62, is attempting to crowdfund her latest feature, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. She professes amusement at the LA Rebellion label. When it was first used, she deadpans, her “mind immediately went back to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in the late 1880s, or pitchforks and torches burning in the night”. Yet I wonder if the term has proven its own problem. Or at least whether the term has assumed more power in the intervening years, given the difficulty black independent film-makers have experienced in trying to forge long careers? She replies emphatically. “Yes, it has. We weren’t trying to fit into the Hollywood paradigm, we were trying to find a new way to reimagine our lives, to define who we were, what we wanted, what our pasts were, and what our future was going to be.”