A Renaissance for Realism

In historical discussions, the loosely linked collective of black filmmakers who studied at the University of California at Los Angeles film school from the late sixties through the early eighties, known as L.A. Rebellion, is often contextualized in the political anger and turmoil of Los Angeles at that time. Landmark events such as the Angela Davis trial and the Watts Riots are commonly cited as primary sources for cinematic inspiration. Meanwhile, film scholars harp on the Rebellion’s indebtedness to European filmmakers, citing the influence of Italian Neorealist cinema as a antidote to the over the top, distorted fantasies of Hollywood’s Blaxploitation films.

Yet to only think of the L.A. Rebellion films within this academic space–as a footnote in a discussion of cinematic genre or as source documents for the history of black L.A.–is a grave mistake. The films of the twelve-part retrospective series “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” hosted by Northwestern University Professor Jacqueline Stewart and the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center, evoke the sense that the Rebellion, in and of itself, is a living tradition. The “real” elements of the films are not merely confined to foreign“-isms,” but are recognizable and evocative for the modern viewer.

“I thought that was my life on the screen!” an audience member testified to the Rebellion filmmaker Billy Woodberry after Saturday’s screening of his 1984 film, “Bless Their Little Hearts,” at the Logan Center for the Arts. Woodberry’s film tells the slowly unraveling story of Charlie Banks, a Watts-area resident struggling to find gainful employment and maintain his fidelity to his wife and family. According to Woodberry, the actor in the film–Chicago native Nate Hardman–had a similar experience to this empathic audience member. “This guy…he was convinced that we had incorporated his story into the film. He thought Kaycee [Kaycee Moore, Hardman’s friend and co-star in the film] had told us all this stuff about his life.” Yet Hardman’s public persona–“a guy who had to have his nails done, who liked his clothes,” according to Woodberry–had little in common with the proletariat Charlie Banks, who is perpetually presented in a grubby undershirt and, in one tense scene, harasses his own son for keeping his nails long, “like a sissy.” Despite these external differences, there was something about the psychological and experiential reality of Banks’ story that convinced the actor that the story was his own. Beyond its narrative elements, the extremely physical nature of Hardman’s performance–which required him to carry out a range of quotidian, tiring tasks such as cutting down a field of tall grass with a scythe and painting a graffiti-covered garage white, led him to ask the question, in Stewart’s paraphrase, “Am I even acting or am I just painting?” It’s these small moments of menial, repetitive labor, so often excluded from theatrical spaces, which seem to blur the line between reality and cinema for both the actor and audience alike.

This question of realism was also articulated in the previous week’s screening, which showed Julia Dash’s landmark 1991 film, “Daughters of the Dust.” “Daughters” was the first film made by African-American women to receive national distribution. The film tells the story of a Gullah family, the Peazants, as they prepare to move for the first time from their isolated island off the coast of Georgia and onto the mainland in 1902. The story itself is based on Dash’s own family and her experience of growing up on Georgia’s Sea Islands. Yet the lush, dream-like imagery of the film–which relies on natural sunlight and has a certain golden hue that recalls Terrence Malick’s similarly lit “Days of Heaven”–appears far more stylized and, in a sense, more fantasized than the work of other L.A. Filmmakers. When Stewart questioned Dash about whether she, as a later graduate of the UCLA school, was in some sense trying to move away from such strict commitments to realism, Dash’s response was an adamant no. According to Dash, her aim was to create a representation of an experience that was so real that it looked “like a foreign country.” And it’s true. When watching the film and the experiences of these islanders, one is tempted to view their lives and their land as somehow magical. Yet the strength of Dash’s film is to buck against this tendency toward a fantasy of the Other. As Dash points out, the Gullah people only seem so foreign, their dialect so strange, because their lives are so rarely documented, in film or anywhere else. In reality, these are U.S. citizens. The film suddenly becomes much more strangely, relatably real and profound. As Roger Ebert aptly put it in his original review, “Daughters” is like “a tone poem of old memories, [or a] family album in which all of the pictures are taken on the same day…the fact that some of the dialogue is deliberately difficult is not frustrating, but comforting; we relax like children at a family picnic, not understanding everything, but feeling at home with the expression of it.” This is power of the film: it forces us to acknowledge a reality that many of us do not know or understand.

With both Woodberry and Dash’s films, it’s possible to get a better sense of what “realism” means for the L.A. Rebellion collective, whether you call it “neo-“ or not. They create encounters rife with both strangeness and familiarity. While these films are heirs to the particularities of the struggle against poverty and racism in seventies L.A., their subjects and objectives extend thematically, geographically, and temporally, past this initial point of inspiration. Moreover, while Blaxploitation may have initially been the boogeyman of the day for the UCLA students, almost all of the filmmakers and presenters in this series addressed the fact that black cinema–as well as Hollywood more generally–has been haunted by corporate distortions throughout its history. In introducing Dash’s film, Stewart critically glossed the nineties trend of “ghetto-centric narratives focusing on ‘boyz’ with a ‘z’ ” (winking at the spate of gangster films that tried to imitate the success of John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood”). Meanwhile, Sergio Mims, who hosted Wednesday’s screening of short films from the L.A. Rebellion, pointed out the movement of film students today trying to become “the next Tyler Perry.”

The call for realism, then, is also a call for both artists and audience to cast off the distorting lenses of Hollywood, and to critically examine their own everyday lives, particularly in black communities, regardless of whether they may appear familiar or foreign to their audience. The Rebellion, then, should not just be thought of as a dated battle, but as an ongoing struggle that lies far beyond the archives of an L.A. film school.