The L.A. Rebellion: How the Watts Riots Helped Spark a Cinematic Revolution
A still from Haile Gerima's politically charged 1982 film "Ashes and Embers." (UCLA Film & Television Archive)
In Haile Gerima's 1975 student film "Bush Mama," the character T.C., played by actor Johnny Weathers, leans up against the bars of his jail cell and speaks directly to the camera.
“Now ya see this white boy,” says T.C. referring to a white guard.
“To guard niggers is within his blood,” says T.C., fingers wrapped tight around the cell bars.
“His roots is maybe ‘overseer,’ and we still the son of the slave. That’s what I inherited ... all of us!”
"Bush Mama" is one of the landmark films to come out of the first wave of black student filmmakers at UCLA, a tightly knit band of experimental, ideological and fiercely independent artists known as the L.A. Rebellion.
They’d turn the riot-torn streets of Watts and other south L.A. communities into the real-life soundstage for work that bucked the Hollywood system.
In "Bush Mama," a disillusioned Vietnam War veteran, T.C., is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. And life at home is starting to unravel for his pregnant wife Dorothy.
Much of the film is told through their correspondence.
The film was largely improvisational. Scenes filmed on the streets of Watts were shot without permits.
“Everything was guerilla style, from getting the equipment out of UCLA to shooting without permits,” says UCLA Film & Television Archive Director Christopher Horak. “'Bush Mama' opens with the police arresting the crew.”
Gerima said he and other young black filmmakers at UCLA wanted to make movies depicting African-American life as it really was -- a deliberate counterattack to the outlandish jive-talking hyper-violence of '70s blaxploitation films like "Super Fly" and its countless imitators.
“We revolted so much. We didn’t want to see, respect any Euro-American cinema, even the good ones,” Gerima told an audience at New York’s New School of Media Studies during a retrospective of his work.
Gerima says the aim was to elevate, not denigrate African-American life and culture.
“In the (UCLA) film school, we say if black people did jazz, what do they do in film? And so we were responding in a very critical way, saying these narrative devices that were racist for us,” Gerima says.
The integration of UCLA’s film school began in earnest during the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the late 1960s, spurred on in the violent wake of the 1965 Watts riots, or “rebellion” as many people prefer to call the week of civil unrest.
“And so it’s really the first generation of minority students at UCLA, and they were not necessarily welcomed,” Horak says.
He says what distinguished these filmmakers were a mix of radical politics and gritty street style.
“Students as well as professors at UCLA just were not used to seeing that type of content presented in that kind of way,” Horak says.
“We were not seen as normal,” laughs director Julie Dash.
Dash, a New York native, arrived in California in the mid-1970s to pursue graduate studies at UCLA. She would go on to make a number of acclaimed films including 1991’s "Daughters of the Dust." Dash says the filmmakers who made up L.A. Rebellion stood out for other reasons, too.
“Because we spent our lives on campus all the time, in sleeping bags, we just worked around the clock,” Dash says.
“Either working on our personal films or someone else’s film, and we just found ourselves living pretty much on campus all the time,” Dash says.
And the way more senior student directors like Haile Gerima depicted black Los Angeles was a revelation to Dash.
“That was not the place that played in my mind when I thought of California, I thought of palm trees and everything you see on television, that narrative of life,” Dash says.
One of the most celebrated films to emerge from the L.A. Rebellion is Charles Burnett’s "Killer of Sheep."
Burnett, influenced in part by post-War War II Italian neo-realist films that used war-torn cities as their backdrop, took a similar approach.
Shot in black and white, the story revolves around a slaughterhouse worker named Stan and his family. Their daily struggles unfold in the blue-collar homes, dusty vacant lots and the crooked alleyways of Watts.
Burnett, who went on to make a number of more commercial films like "The Glass Shield" and "To Sleep with Anger," was unavailable for an interview.
But in the commentary from the long-awaited DVD release of "Killer of Sheep," he talks about his time at UCLA.
“We were going to make a difference and introduce new narratives about the black experience and we were reacting against all the negative stereotypes that Hollywood continued to produce,” Burnett says. “You know, turn back to our own stories and try to tell them.”
Aside from the occasional screening at a library or local theater, the films of L.A. Rebellion would go largely unseen off campus. A lot of the original prints would disappear into attics, garages and in one case, a backyard chicken coop in Compton.
“And we found it in the dirt at the very back of the shed after cleaning out for like a whole day,” laughs UCLA’s Christopher Horak.
In 2011, UCLA launched in initiative to track down and restore the film of the era.
That includes Julie Dash’s first student feature "Illusions," shot on the UCLA campus.
It set the tone for the kind of films Dash would go on to make. Most famously, the critically acclaimed "Daughters of the Dust" -- the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to get a major theatrical release and a story Dash was developing while still at UCLA.
“I just wanted to explore the culture of African-American women that I was not really seeing,” Dash says.
“Everyone had to be some cool, slick jive mama,” Dash laughs. “And I wanted to see something else.”
Despite their limited exposure, films and filmmakers from L.A. Rebellion left an indelible mark on future black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton, both of whom acknowledge the influence of films like "Killer of Sheep" and "Daughters of the Dust."
“The best work holds up really well and there were amazing discoveries we made in this whole process,” says Horak.
Many of the films from the L.A. Rebellion era will be included in a 25-DVD box set that will be distributed to schools, libraries and other institutions later this year along with a book published by University of California Press chronicling the movement.
“They were very meaningful and they continue to be meaningful,” Dash says. “They document a time period and they document very specific voices we had not seen or heard before. That’s why they’re like treasures.”
Treasures that continue to be unearthed, literally dusted off and placed alongside some of the finest films of the era.