The Old New Black Cinema: MOMI Celebrates a Movement


The so-called “LA Rebellion” that emanated out of UCLA in the late ’60s and ’70s was the pioneering stake on a genuine “black cinema.” Barnstorming “race films” of yore and contemporaneous blaxploitation were ghettos of cheap opportunism compared to these movies, a tributary of the “personal” indie-film waterway sourced from John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959). A revolutionary esprit attached to the movement, crossing vectors with the Black Power zeitgeist, even though it didn’t receive its defiant moniker until 1986, when prof Clyde Taylor put together the first retrospective for the Whitney—and even though it began as the university’s conscientious “Ethno-Communications” initiative, matriculating students of color in the hopes of channeling and ameliorating the hellacious racial tensions of the day.

The resulting films hewed so closely to their makers’ sense of racial authenticity and social truth-telling that mainstream culture, looming nearby in the form of Hollywood, all but ignored them, and the “Black Independent Movement” has been virtually cinema non grata ever since. This traveling survey excavates UCLA’s proudly maintained archive, providing a window on a rarely screened moment in the development of contemporary black film.

The knee-jerk launching spot is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), a searing and essential experience fashioned out of little more than L.A. poverty, the post-verite/post-Cassavetes Zeitgeist, and the filmmaker’s bedeviling sense of composition, ennui, and brute-lyric imagery. On the surface merely a mood piece about the dead-end existence of being American and black in the ’70s, the movie attains an inexplicable power, an almost primal thrust and mystery that suggests, to the willing viewer, millennia of godless desperation and the horrors of the food chain.

There’s no story, but there are people—mainly, Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), a poor slaughterhouse laborer whose life in the outer-urban wastes is in the process of bulldozing his pride and confidence. Burnett’s film proceeds from the very beginning as if every image and moment of Stan’s life is a mythic truth to gaze upon, and damn if it isn’t sweepingly convincing in the process. The action, for instance, of attempting to carry a disembodied car engine down a flight of tract-housing stairs has positively Sisyphean traction. It’s not a movie you pick dramatic highlights or even visual memories from; instead, it flows before you like a despairing folk song made real, a blues anthem older than movies or Burnett himself. Not properly released until 2007 (Burnett’s stirring soundtrack, which rivals Scorsese’s for Mean Streets in pioneering jukebox eloquence, was largely uncleared for rights), Killer of Sheep was nevertheless, famously, chosen as one of the first 50 films as part of the National Film Registry in 1990, defined as honoring and preserving movies that are “culturally, historically, or esthetically important,” a full 17 years before it was finally made available in any way for people to see.

Burnett worked as cinematographer on several of the other pivotal films here, including Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), a roiling screed with an oppressively didactic narrative (about a pregnant mother left on her own when her husband is unjustly imprisoned) but a raucous taste for Godardian tumult and collage, both visual and auditory. (Traces of Fernando Solanas’s hectic insurrectionary agitprop are also palpable.) Burnett shot and wrote, and featured his own children in, Billy Woodberry’s similarly seething and tragic Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), which like most of the Rebellion flicks, short and long, never takes its neo-realist eye off the grim socioeconomic reality of blackness. But as hypnotic and eloquent as gritty post-Godard ultra-realism is, perhaps especially now, the Rebellion’s terrain was still open range. Thus, Gerima’s first feature, made when he was still enrolled, Child of Resistance (1972), re-envisions black subjugation, and specifically the 1970 arrest and prosecution of Angela Davis, as screaming-mimi Theater of the Absurd. Jamaa Fanaka’s Emma Mae (1976) and Larry Clarke’s Passing Through (1977) both ironically interface with the tropes of blaxploitation, permanently muddying that genre’s waters before Quentin Tarantino even dropped out of high school.

But, years later, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) may still stand as the most radical stylistic departure, and the most inspired detour in black cinema—a ghostly memory-film about a Gullah family migrating from the Sea Islands in 1902, soaked in creole and aching with ancestral remorse. (Dash’s earlier shorts are on view, too, including 1977’s Diary of an African Nun, a moody and oblique visualization of the Alice Walker story.) One of a kind and a pungent lesson in originality for ethnographic filmmakers of every stripe, Dash’s masterwork made a splash two decades ago—it was the first feature by an African-American woman to get a theatrical release in America—and deserves to be more urgently remembered now.