The Brainy Rebellion
Black American Filmmakers of LA
One day in 1990, I walked into the Harvard Exit Theater, took a seat, and watched a movie that transformed my life. It was about an old man who arrives in Los Angeles by Greyhound bus and pays some old friends a surprise visit. He is welcomed into their home, introduced to the younger members of the family, given a room in which he can stay for as long as he likes, and fed and entertained. After settling in, the old man—the old friend, the old fox—starts disrupting and dismantling his hosts' family life piece by piece. This movie, which stars Danny Glover, has the oddest title (To Sleep with Anger), a beautiful but nightmarish opening shot (a bowl of fruit, a chair, a man sitting in the chair as a growing fire consumes his shoes), and a story that progresses with the confidence of a great American novel. But the thing that impressed me most about Anger was this: the absence of race. Though directed by a black man (Charles Burnett), set in a black neighborhood, and involving the social world of a black family (going to work, going to church, holding a party, hiking in a park), there is almost no mention of racism, race relations, or even white people. Only at the end does a black man complain about how the county's morgue (yes, morgue) doesn't service the black parts of town as efficiently as it does the white ones. That's it.
You must remember that a year before To Sleep with Anger's 1990 release, Spike Lee hit the screens hard with Do the Right Thing, a film that ends with a bang—a total race apocalypse. On top of that, Public Enemy was selling millions of copies of an album that threatened the whole planet with black power. This was not the kind of political atmosphere in which one expected to see a film about middle-class blacks whose problems had little to do with discrimination, police oppression, and economic dispossession, but a bad man ("a colored gentleman") who was manipulating a family's weaknesses. Where did this film and its new vision come from? It had its roots in a school of black American filmmakers called the LA Rebellion. A name like that leads one to imagine a group of artists churning out one Do the Right Thing after another and calling for the destruction of the government. But this group, which flourished from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, was not at all like Spike Lee; the men and women of the LA Rebellion were intellectuals and had a much richer and more global perspective on the black condition.
The LA Rebellion was a small number of black American filmmakers (many are now professors) who attended film school at UCLA and made films that were often experimental, often realistic, often beautiful, and often challenging. The main directors of this movement were Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Larry Clark, and Billy Woodberry—and its most famous films are Killer of Sheep, Bush Mama, and Daughters of the Dust. Though these film are political and do address black American poverty and other social issues, they never explode into the masculine black rage of Spike Lee's cinema or lose sight of the deeper, far more complicated and human side of the black experience. The characters in Daughters of the Dust, for example, are rich and vivid and have interests in science, history, and nature. My Brother's Wedding, an obscure film by Charles Burnett, is set in the inner city during the rise of the crack epidemic, but it's about a young man who is struggling to make sense of a world filled with contradictions. Like jazz in the modern moment, or mid-20th-century black American novels, the LA Rebellion is above all an intellectual movement.
Though To Sleep with Anger is not being screened in Northwest Film Forum's LA Rebellion series (through March 24), it's consistent with the aesthetics and mode of many of the films that are: Bush Mama, Daughters of the Dust, Passing Through, Bless Their Hearts, and My Brother's Wedding. Charles Burnett will be in attendance at events on March 8 and 9.