Film

‘Say It Loud’ Delivers a Fiery Crash Course in Political Cinema From the Black Power Era

The two-week BAMcinématek program offers an overview of screen work that captured the spirit of an incendiary movement

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I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but the new BAMcinématek series “Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power, 1966–1981” seems — in addition to a nod to a salient period of political activism both in America and worldwide — also like a secret salute to one group in particular: the L.A. Rebellion. What is the L.A. Rebellion, you ask? The Rebellion was a group of young, Black filmmakers who studied at UCLA’s film school and, during the Seventies, released a wave of prominent, independent, Black-and-proud films. These artists were dropping personal, uncommercial work that was a counterpoint to the blaxploitation movies crowding movie houses at that time. While those pulpy popcorn flicks had Black stars righteously entertaining Black audiences, the inventive, low-low-low-budget films of the Rebellion — inspired by film movements coming out of Europe, Latin America, and, of course, Africa — were for-us-by-us films with a neorealist bent. They were honest, political, and fiery as hell — just like the era from which they emerged.

With the exception of the Black Panthers — the subject of several documentaries in “Say It Loud” — there isn’t a group that’s more prevalent during this fourteen-day program. The most well-known and revered film to come out of the movement, Charles Burnett’s 1977 classic Killer of Sheep, has a spot. But you also get the 1975 rarity Bush Mama, directed by the Ethiopian-born Haile Gerima (and lensed by Burnett). Both are black-and-white, shot-on-16mm accounts of life in the inner city. But while Sheep is slow, quiet, and intimate, Mama is jarring, noisy, and chaotic. It practically makes the case that being a Black person (especially in America) means your senses are always on attack. For Black people, life is a constant endurance test filled with insane, often dangerous obstacles. As Mama shows, just going through the day not killing a muhfucka is a steep challenge. (BAM’s Mama screening will be followed by Hour Glass, Gerima’s kinetic-frenetic 1971 short that uses music from the Last Poets, who also are the subjects of the 1970 Right On!, another selection in the series.)

There are additional pieces from Rebellion-era filmmakers slotted across the calendar: After the Sheep screening, there will be two children-themed shorts from Alile Sharon Larkin and Don Amis. There’s also Larry Clark’s 1977 jazz gem Passing Through. Uncategorizable shorts from Barbara McCullough and Jamaa Fanaka are part of the August 29 themed evening, “Mass of Images: Black Power Era Experimenta.” There’s Medea, a seven-minute, 1973 short from Ben Caldwell, set to an Amiri Baraka poem. (I’m kinda surprised early work from fellow Rebellion member and Daughters of the Dust director Julie Dash, like her 1975 Nina Simone–scored short Four Women, isn’t included in this series.) Medea features as part of a night of films devoted to Baraka and his work, including the man’s 1968 documentary The New-Ark and Dutchman, the 1966 adaptation of his controversial play about a meeting between an African-American man (Al Freeman Jr.) and a white woman (Shirley Knight) on a New York subway. And of course, you can’t have a Black Power film series without The Spook Who Sat by the Door, actor-director-activist Ivan Dixon’s faithfully angry, 1973 adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s radical satirical novel, in which an undercover CIA agent (Lawrence Cook) builds a guerrilla army in the hopes of overthrowing the government.

Many of the era’s most memorable provocateurs, instigators, and innovators are represented on celluloid. James Baldwin and Dick Gregory appear in the 1968 short Baldwin’s Nigger, in which they speak to a group of radical West Indian students in London. There are two films from Sweet Sweetback himself, Melvin Van Peebles: his 1968 debut, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (based on his novel), and Watermelon Man, his farcical 1970 foray into studio filmmaking, where he cast comedian Godfrey Cambridge as a white dude who wakes up one morning to discover he’s now — gasp! — a negro! And before he had Richard Roundtree kick all kinds of ass with Shaft, photographer Gordon Parks Sr. adapted his own semi-autobiographical novel in 1969 with The Learning Tree. Another film I’m glad to see is part of this package is the 1968 mindfuck Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. It’s like this: Filmmaker/prankster William Greaves instructs a film crew to shoot actors playing a couple having a fight in Central Park, giving them as little information as possible. It gets to the point where the crew secretly huddles together and films themselves figuring out what the hell is this guy trying to do. You could say Greaves is not only purposely playing the role of a pretentious, tyrannical movie director, but steering his mostly alabaster crew through a crash course on living like a Black person, trying to exist in a society that mostly keeps us — pardon the pun — in the dark. (Before he passed in 2014, Greaves did tell me it was “a real gas to have that crew as befuddled and confused as possible.”)

It’s not only Stateside Black people having their voices heard in “Say It Loud.” In the 1972 period piece Sambizanga, French filmmaker Sarah Maldoror tells the story of a woman tracking down her husband, an Angolan revolutionary who was arrested by Portuguese colonial officials. (Maldoror herself was married to Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade, the late leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.) Mauritanian director Med Hondo spent four years shooting 1970’s Soleil O (Oh, Sun), where a Black immigrant goes to Paris in search of his ancestors. Another Black male tries to find his place in the world — this time in London — in Horace Ové’s 1975 film Pressure.

A number of pale-skinned filmmakers from the time were also ready to show Black Power in all its incendiary glory; numerous films here find white directors doing an effective job letting brothas and sistas be themselves and speak truth to power. The now-iconic French filmmaker Agnès Varda reported on the Black Panther Party’s activities in Oakland with her 1968 short Black Panthers. The late documentarian Howard Alk captured the madness Chicago was under in the Sixties with the films The Murder of Fred Hampton and American Revolution 2. White filmmakers also made some polarizing narrative Black films. High atop this category is Robert Downey Sr.’s oft-celebrated 1969 satire Putney Swope, a rowdy takedown of corporate America where a Black man (Arnold Johnson) wrests control of an advertising firm and implements subversive ideas. There’s also the long-lost 1968 drama Uptight, directed by blacklisted film-noir great Jules Dassin (Rififi, Night and the City). This Blackified remake of John Ford’s The Informer uses the death of Martin Luther King Jr. as a jumping-off point in telling the story of a desperate drunk (author/playwright Julian Mayfield, who co-wrote the script) who makes some bad decisions after getting ousted from a militant Black group.

As much as this all-encompassing series rightly highlights Black people’s proud efforts to persevere during tumultuous times, it also doesn’t sidestep moments of celebration. This sense of uplift is evoked in one of my favorite concert films, Wattstax (also playing this month at Anthology Film Archives). A 1973 document of the benefit concert that occurred at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum the year prior, the film shows many of Stax Records’ heaviest hitters (Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays) entertaining the people of Watts; it’s in many ways a salute to them, for still keeping it together after the Watts Riots. (BTW, L.A. Rebellion member Larry Clark served as a cinematographer.) Much like that concert, “Say It Loud” is a tribute, particularly to the challenging celluloid work filmmakers and artists, both Black and not-Black, did during those very eventful years. As provocative contemporary films like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and BlacKkKlansman continue to wow audiences and stir up debates and conversations, you can virtually thank many of the films in this series for inspiring these new movies and their hell-raising, button-pushing, let’s-raise-a-fist-while-we-start-some-shit attitudes.

‘Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power, 1966–1981’
BAMcinématek
August 17–30

 

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