In the late 1960s, the civil rights movement had entered a new phase. It was the era of black power — and universities were actively courting African Americans and other minorities to enroll.
It was in this charged atmosphere that the “L.A. Rebellion” was born at UCLA. African American students enrolled at the School of Theater, Film and Television and, over the next 20 years, created a new culture of black films that was far removed from the Hollywood blaxploitation urban crime thrillers of the time, which included such box-office hits as “Coffy” and “Superfly.”
As part of the Pacific Standard Time festival, the UCLA Film & Television Archive is shining the spotlight on these filmmakers with a two-month retrospective, “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” which opens Friday at the Billy Wilder Theater with Julie Dash’s acclaimed 1991 film, “Daughters of the Dust,” about the descendants of African captives who escaped the slave trade and live on the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Dash will appear in person.
Besides Dash, several important filmmakers in the movement will attend the screenings of their work, including Charles Burnett (1977’s “Killer of Sheep”), Jamaa Fanaka (1979’s “Penitentiary”), Haile Gerima (1979’s “Bush Mama”) and Larry Clark (1977’s “Passing Through”), not to be confused with the “Kids” director of the same name.
The film students quickly bonded, said archive head Jan-Christopher Horak, since the predominantly white professors, especially in the film department, weren’t particularly welcoming.
These budding filmmakers “weren’t Hollywood-centric,” Horak said. “They were reacting to a certain degree against the blaxploitation films in the ‘70s as being inauthentic. They wanted to do things differently and, of course, they were strongly influenced by black-power politics. Who wasn’t? White leftists and liberals were too at that time. The professorship, though, didn’t get it.”
Dash began at UCLA in 1976 after completing a two-year conservatory fellowship at the American Film Institute. She was impressed with the freedom the students were given.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “Coming out of the American Film Institute, they were kind of gearing the students to a certain way of television writing and film writing, which was great to learn that craft, but at UCLA we had total autonomy over how we were going to shoot it. They were open to experimentation. I think a lot of what we did — experimentation — is why we became known as the L.A. Rebellion. We certainly crossed boundaries. We didn’t feel like we were constricted or confined. We could give voice to events and issues — not only contemporary events and issues, but events and issues in history.”
Horak believes that audiences will be blown away by a lot of the films in the festival that haven’t been seen in years, including Clark’s “Passing Through,” about a jazz musician trying to buck the mafia. “It’s just so beautifully shot,” Horak said. “They are going to be huge discoveries for the audience.”
As part of the retrospective, UCLA has restored and preserved not only the L.A. Rebellion’s student films but also its later features. Horak also has conducted oral histories with more than 20 of the filmmakers for the archive and is working with two other scholars on a book. The series will travel to several cities after the retrospective ends Dec. 17.
“I think what has impressed me most about all this work is that there is a movement — there is a consistency of themes, obsessions, preoccupations,” Horak said.
“There is a certain iconic person who turns up again and again in these films: Angela Davis,” the activist and onetime UCLA assistant professor. “She’s an icon to these filmmakers and a heroine of the first order. This is a generation … that for the first time was able to express what they feel is authentic African American culture.”
For more information, go to https://www.cinema.ucla.edu.