Archival Spaces 279
L.A. Rebellion Project – 10 Years On
Uploaded 1 October 2021
Tomorrow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ newly opened Academy Museum begins a seventeen-film series, “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and His Comrades” (2 October – 14 November) which is being presented in conjunction with Gerima becoming the Museum’s first Vantage Award winner. The program will include all of Haile’s films, beginning with Sankofa (1993), films of his comrades Shirikiana Aina, Julie Dash and Ava DuVernay, and his students at Howard University, Malik Sayeed,, Arthur Jaffe, Bradford Young, Raafi Rivero, and Merawi Gerima (Shirikiana and Haile’s son). To see Haile Gerima, the most radical black nationalist of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers so honored by the bastion of a formerly racist institution like the Academy is something probably neither he nor the governors of the Academy would have dreamed of fifty years ago, when Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Jamaa Fanaka, and Billy Woodberry first entered UCLA’s film school.
But after in September-December 2011, UCLA Film & Television Archive organized its massive 58-film retrospective, “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” conceptualized by myself in co-curatorship with Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Allyson Nadia Field, and Shannon Kelly, the L.A. Rebellion began entering the mainstream after having with a few exceptions fallen out of film history. That program also included a symposium and was followed by a book publication (2015), a touring program throughout the United States and Europe (2012-15), and the publication of a three DVD teaching set (2015). Furthermore, several programs in 2013 and 2015 presented new restorations, especially of women filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, including Ijeoma Iloputaife, aka Omah Diegu, Stormé Bright, Jacqueline Frazier, Imelda Sheen, and Alile Sharon Larkin.
It all began with a very modest idea to participate in the Getty Foundation-funded “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition of post-World War II Art in Los Angeles. I had met Billy Woodberry in 1984 at the Berlin Film Festival and shown his work in Rochester at George Eastman House. The Archive had also preserved a number of Charles Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep, which was subsequently named to the National Registry of American Films. When we wrote our first grant application, we thought we would show the work of eight to ten UCLA film students; by the time we were finished, we had identified 50 student filmmakers. Shortly after receiving initial funding, Professor Allyson Nadia Field joined the faculty of UCLA’s School of Film, Theater and Television. Since she wrote her dissertation on African American uplift films of the 1910s, it was only natural that she join the curatorial team. Just as serendipitously, Professor Jacqueline Stewart, at that time a member of the Cinema and African-American Studies faculty at Northwestern, asked me whether she could spend a year at UCLA Film & Television Archive and in the Moving Image Archives Program, learning about film archiving. Jacqueline not only kick-started the whole project as part of her “internship” work for the Archive but became a vital member of the curatorial team.
In the almost twelve years of my directorship of the Archive, the L.A. Rebellion project in all its phases was one of my proudest achievements, maybe because we were dealing with a living generation of filmmakers, and not just restoring the work of those long dead. Some like Haile and Shirikiana, Billy Woodberry, Jamaa Fanaka, Ben Caldwell, Jacqueline Frazier, and Ijeoma Iloputaife remained friends, although we lost Jamaa in 2012. Some filmmaking careers have since even been reinvigorated: Billy Woodberry has been on a tear, producing a number of award-winning films, including And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015); Julie Dash is slated to direct an Angela Davis bio-pic after completing two shorts and four television episodes (Queen Sugar, 2017); Barbara McCullough competed her long awaits Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (2017); Zeinabu Irene Davis premiered her documentary, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA (2015); Charles Burnett as directed several shorts and the massive three-hour documentary, After the Lockdown: Black in LA (2021); S. Torriano Berry continues his amazing productivity with a new documentary of African American life in Iowa.
Not only did many of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers travel with the touring program, as they had done in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when their work was being celebrated at a host of European film festivals, if not in Amerika, L.A. Rebellion films continue to be shown in retrospectives in the last five years at New York University, St. Mary’s College, Indiana University Cinema, MUBI, The Smithsonian, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chicago Film Society, Barcelona, the TCM Film Festival, Rio de Janeiro, Athens (Greece) Avant-Garde Film Festival, The Broad/ Art + Practice, among many other sites. Furthermore, the L.A. Rebellion is now part of the standard film curriculum at many American universities, including courses at the University of Chicago, Williams College, University of California Irvine, San Francisco State University, University of Pittsburgh, and the Baltimore Youth Film Arts.
In 2017, Charles Burnett received an Honorary Award from the Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, one of the first indications that the Academy was trying to bring filmmakers of color into the fold. Expanding its membership in 2019 to include many women and persons of color and hiring Jacqueline Stewart as chief artistic and programming officer in 2020 were two further steps. Julie Dash’s Illusions and Daughters of the Dust, as well as Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts are now all on the National Registry. At the moment, filmmaker Khadijah Louis is in pre-production on a film about her grandfather, Jamaa Fanaka, my “friend for Life.”