Preservation Projects: The L.A. Rebellion
Film preservation not only safeguards individual films, but can also preserve a film movement. An exciting example is UCLA Film & Television Archive’s preservation of films from the L.A. Rebellion.
Following the Watts Uprising of 1965 and ensuing racial tensions, UCLA met the demands of its students by instituting an Ethno-Communications initiative, which responded to the needs of communities of color and facilitated non-commercial filmmaking by artists such as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Larry Clark, Haile Gerima, and Billy Woodberry.
Their shared goal was to create authentic narratives about the black experience that avoided the stereotypes of Hollywood or the Blaxploitation genre. The films were influenced by study of “third world” cinema from Latin America and Africa, the French nouvelle vague, and postwar neorealist cinema. The filmmakers brought to their work a wider consciousness of the black liberation and anti-Vietnam War movements and second-generation feminism. The results were classics such as Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Clark’s Passing Through (1978), Gerima’s Bush Mama (1975), Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979), and Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to receive a major theatrical release.
Decades later, many prints and negatives of L.A. Rebellion had disappeared or deteriorated, and in 2010 UCLA Film & Television Archive launched a preservation initiative, followed the next year by a Symposium and screenings at international venues. The full program of 56 films included scores of new prints and 12 fully preserved works. The National Film Preservation Foundation had the honor to fund seven preservations through its basic federal grants, partnership grants (which use services donated by laboratories), and Avant-Garde Masters Grants (made possible by The Film Foundation). The seven NFPF-funded titles are:
Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), Billy Woodberry’s study, filmed by Charles Burnett, of a struggling African American father in Los Angeles who cannot find a job; Diary of an African Nun (1977), Julie Dash’s adaptation of the Alice Walker short story; I & I (1979), Ben Caldwell’s mystical mediation about Black Nationalism and African myth; Illusions (1982), a fictionalized tale by Julie Dash about a female movie executive who passes as white; Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979), Barbara McCullough’s meditation on African ritual and contemporary African American life; and two films by Charles Burnett: Several Friends (1969), about an African American family and their unemployed friends in South Central Los Angeles, and The Horse (1973), a coming-of-age tale viewed as allegorical of racial relations in the South.
In 2015 UCLA’s initiative also produced a book, L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press), edited by Allyson Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. A collection of essays and oral histories, it provides content to and analysis of the movement, and includes a complete filmography. Premiering the same year was the documentary Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA, by Zeinabu Irene Davis, herself a member of the Rebellion, and featuring interviews with its leading lights. You can read more about the book and project at Jan-Christopher Horak’s blog.