As Above So Below
As Above So Below

Black cinema has always been relegated to the cultural margins, but how does an artist survive at the margin of the margins? A year and a half ago, UCLA Film & Television Archive presented a sweeping retrospective on artists of color who’ve come through the school’s filmmaking program since the 1970s. You may know about Charles Burnett, whose Killer of Sheep (1977) was named to the National Film Registry in 1990, or Julie Dash, whose Daughters of the Dust (1991) won the same honor in 2004. But “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” also showcased long-forgotten films by such adventurous talents as Ben Caldwell, Larry Clark, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough, and Billy Woodberry. Needless to say, this explosion of underground, Afrocentric filmmaking at UCLA, mainly in the 70s and 80s, has gone completely unnoticed by the mainstream; even most histories of African-American cinema leapfrog it on their way from Shaft to Spike Lee.

More recently, an abbreviated version of the UCLA series has been making its way around the country, and this spring it arrives in Chicago, with a shorts program this week at Gene Siskel Film Center and then six weeks of additional screenings, beginning April 25, at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art and the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. The films I’ve been able to preview aren’t all brilliant, but together they make a persuasive case that here was not just a bunch of aspiring film students who happened to be black but a creative renaissance that consistently pushed the boundaries of how black experience was presented onscreen. More particularly, the opening shorts program gives some sense of the commercial landscape that confronted these artists as the school’s filmmaking program was opened up to minorities in the 60s and 70s. As many of these black artists would come to realize, you could make a lot more money by catering to white preconceptions than you could by telling a story true to your own experience.

A key figure in all this was UCLA film professor Elyseo J. Taylor, whose course “Film and Social Change” became a formative experience for Burnett in the late 60s. “The objective was to get people of color to tell stories about their community,” explained the filmmaker (who later became a teaching assistant for Taylor) in an interview with Senses of Cinema. “All the people attending the course were there making films in response to false and negative images that Hollywood films were promoting.” Pressured by Burnett and other students, the School of Theater, Film, and Television created an “Ethno-Communications” initiative with Taylor as its head. An outreach effort to recruit more nonwhite arts students targeted not just African-Americans but the city’s Asian, Latino, and Native American communities. From 1969 onward the film program recruited many more minority students, and Taylor’s encouragement of personal expression made UCLA a distinct alternative to the whiter, more industry-affiliated USC across town.

The oldest film on the shorts program, in fact in the entire series, is Taylor’s 15-minute documentary Black Art, Black Artists (1971), which provides some insight into his cultural perspective even though another man does most of the speaking. Taylor interviews Van Slater, a woodcut artist at Compton City College, as he labors over his latest work with a gouge and talks about the realities of selling art. “You go to any exhibition today featuring black artists, and you’re dependent primarily on white patronage more than black,” Slater says. This has been true since the Harlem Renaissance, when “white high-lifers” snapped up paintings of blues singers and jazz musicians that flattered their sense of ghetto adventure. As for black patrons, “middle-class Negroes . . . were buying for status. They were only gonna buy from [black] artists who were established, so to speak. And the ones that were established were the ones who were established in the white community. They wouldn’t take a chance on buying something from an unknown black artist who may really have had something to say.”

One student who clearly internalized these ideas was Ben Caldwell, who appears at Film Center on Thursday to talk about his shorts Medea (1973) and I & I: An African Allegory (1977). Created on an animation stand and edited in-camera, the seven-minute Medea bluntly challenges viewers to recapture their culture: a darkly colorful sequence of moving cloud formations at sunset, eerily accompanied by a gong on the soundtrack, gives way to a manic montage of drawings and photographs that span the whole history of Africans in America, and a woman’s voice-over intoning Amiri Baraka’s poem “Part of the Doctrine,” a chant based on the word race and its homonyms. Provocatively, when Baraka observes, “Those who are without God, who have lost the spiritual principle of their lives, are not rays / And their race is to their natural deaths,” a burst of photos shows African-American entertainers who were embraced by white audiences (Duke Ellington, Odetta, B.B. King).

Implicit in the belief that each person should tell his own story was the notion that, to some extent, everyone had a story to tell. As a result, UCLA film students got a well-rounded, hands-on education that was markedly different from the distinct career paths—screenwriting, cinematography, editing—laid out by the USC curriculum. The philosophy, Burnett once explained to Film Comment, was, “‘Here’s a camera, go out and do it.’ It made you think that everything was possible. Because you could do it, and you proved it, over and over again. If I’d gone to USC I’d have a different way of viewing things. I’d have thought of things as more complicated, of having to have different things in place before I could do anything.” This sort of empowerment might explain why the same filmmakers keep turning up on each other’s projects as editors or camera operators; the collaborative aspect, and the artistic community it nurtured, were central to the UCLA experience in the 70s.

When you look at the first big blast of filmmaking to come out of UCLA in the 70s, you can’t help but marvel at its passion. Larry Clark’s rough-edged but potent As Above So Below (1973) is a paranoid fever dream in which black revolutionaries battle a federal government intent on herding African-Americans into internment camps and subjecting them to experimental brain surgery (Thu 6/6, 7 PM, Block Museum). Clark was a primary influence on the Ethiopian-American student Haile Gerima, whose bold, black-and-white Bush Mama (1975) tells the story of a Chicago wife and mother politically radicalized by her frustration with the city’s social service agencies (Thu 5/9, 7 PM, Logan Center). Caldwell followed his Medea with I & I: An African Allegory, whose arty parable of a divided self and a magical “wind messenger” reaches for no less than a history of the African diaspora. And Barbara McCullough’s startling, quasi-mystical Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979), also screening this week, anticipates the women filmmakers, like O. Funmilayo Makarah and Zeinabu Irene Davis, who would become more prominent at UCLA in the 80s and 90s.

The series also includes Burnett’s superb family drama My Brother’s Wedding (1983), screening in a director’s cut that he’ll talk about in person (Thu 5/2, 7 PM, Logan Center), and Julie Dash will be in town for her unique and beautiful ethnographic drama Daughters of the Dust, the first film by an African-American woman to win distribution in the United States (Tue 5/21, 7 PM, Logan Center). Ironically, Dash and Burnett have become the heroes of a defiantly uncommercial movement by virtue of their commercial success. “Now, when you go back [to UCLA], it’s ‘How can I get into Hollywood? How do you do get an agent? How do you sell your first script?'” Burnett told Film Comment. “The whole culture has changed. It’s a business now, and I think people are more aware of it as a business. I wasn’t aware of it as a business.” Sometimes a school can be most valuable for what it doesn’t teach.