The Revolutionary Cinema of the Female LA Rebellion Directors
Since the birth of modern narrative cinema in the 1910s, black filmmakers have sought to find an adequate means of representation onscreen. In the 1970s, this had been achieved to a limited degree, with most black faces seen on white mainstream screens through Blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly. As a response to this, the LA rebellion filmmakers (graduates of the UCLA film school) made independent films focussing on the reality of African American oppression, creating a new, distinct Black Cinema. As university-educated filmmakers, these directors were equipped with a broad knowledge of cinematic history. This allowed them to effectively critique prior depictions of African Americans in earlier works, and actively subvert the negative connotations attached to black people on mainstream white screens.
While some directors, such as Spike Lee, made Black Cinema within a mainstream commercial aesthetic in part for greater visibility, the LA Rebellion approach was to entirely reject white cinema, staying wholly within the confines of independent cinema to create an unfiltered aesthetic. Though as a white writer I cannot truly relate to the struggles that African American women face, I would still like to use my platform to promote the work of three wonderful directors who have created groundbreaking films centred around these experiences.
The most well-known of the female LA Rebellion directors is Julie Dash, who began making shorts in the 1970s while working on her degree. Dash was able to utilise a relatively unique perspective on Black Cinema for the context of the early 1970s: that of a black woman with an education in film similar to that of her white contemporaries. This is best exemplified by her early film Illusions, which rewrites film history from the perspective of the black women who had to negotiate discrimination in their careers and compromise on success in the industry.
The protagonist of the short, Mignon Dupree, is a successful producer working at a fictional Hollywood studio in 1942, making films that provide escapism from the grim backdrop of World War II. However, we discover partway through the film that she is African American and has been passing as white, revealed when a young black woman (Esther) she works with can see through the illusion of her race. Mignon’s struggle is therefore twofold, as she must navigate both gender and racial discrimination, though these identifications are not necessarily equally challenging – she has been able to progress in her career, albeit with difficulty, as a woman, but must hide her ethnicity.
She has met Esther earlier in the film when she was used to dub over a white actress singing earlier that day, in a scene with richly complex cinematography. The actress is shown on a screen within the screen, framed by the black studio space surrounding her. In the corner, far smaller than the actress, the black woman is visible, shown staring at the white woman as she sings lines to synchronise with her mouth movements. The position the actress holds as the focal point of the frame reinforces the white hegemony of Hollywood, while the singer’s marginal position serves to both emphasise her lack of agency or power in this industry and to raise the issue of Black Art being appropriated for white audiences.
Mignon comments that the process is usually reversed, with the actress lip-synching to the song instead of the singer trying to follow the mouth movements, noting how much harder this method is. This highlights the invisible labour that black women have historically performed in creative industries, being given thankless, difficult tasks while a white woman is literally shown languishing on a sofa. In depicting these two characters as the main protagonists of her short, Dash is placing black women front and centre, while revealing another level of reality behind the representation we are shown in white cinema.
While Dash’s short films give an early insight into her political priorities, her beautiful feature film Daughters of the Dust provides a broader exploration of the stereotypes that surround black women by focussing on a Gullah matriarchy at the turn of the century with an African American, female gaze. Women of various ages and attitudes are depicted at a key turning point in the future of the Gullah people, one which inevitably raises questions concerning displacement and identity: their migration to the mainland of Georgia.
When on white screens, this narrative is often depicted in terms of a primitive/progressive binary, the movement of slaves from Africa to America closely paired with the implication of enlightenment. While this is subverted in less sympathetic characters like Viola, who is repressed and dissatisfied despite being supposedly ‘enlightened’ by her dogmatic Christianity, there are numerous positive depictions of black women that go against type in a variety of ways. The rituals and religions of African Americans are frequently depicted as ‘black magic’ in white media, with overwhelmingly negative connotations.
In Daughters of the Dust, Dash challenges this linear sense of progression by implying that those associated with the mainland are more repressed and lacking in autonomy than those who remain closely attached to the Gullah culture and religion. This is best exemplified by the Nana, the elderly matriarch of the family who practices African spiritual rituals. Instead of being ‘othered’ or possessing menacing powers, Nana is shown to be the calm mediator of the family, accepting and forgiving to those who look up to her, and refusing to leave the island and assimilate into white culture.
While others are cruel and cold to Yellow Mary because of her sex work and implied lesbian relationship, Nana embraces her with open arms, embodying the progressive spirit of their island life. Mary is also an interesting subversion of types of black women, especially as a mixed-race character – rejection from both racial communities has granted her independence, and therefore the ability to move in between the mainland and the island with relative ease. In confronting and interrogating stereotypes established in white cinema, Dash creates an alternate cinematic reality for Black women, allowing them emancipation and freedom of expression.
Though Daughters of the Dust has made Julie Dash the most famous of the female LA Rebellion filmmakers, the influential Black Cinema of other women in the movement is also ripe for analysis. Barbara McCullough’s work, though also interested in the stereotypes that control representations of black women, will be analysed in this essay for its depictions of black displacement, both physically in US history and metaphorically to the margins of white cinema. Her film Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification uses ‘neo-pagan performance’ to document the experience of being an African American woman living in white Christian America. Featuring a ritual performed by McCullough herself, the film depicts a woman sat with her legs spread on the dirt outside of a dilapidated home, feeling it and blowing it out of her hands. This sitting position evokes images of Mother Earth cradling the world, perhaps to place black women in an unusually privileged position of creation and control.
The setting of the film is ambiguous; although it was shot in America, the imagery in the short is reminiscent of that of West Africa, reflecting the displacement and dissonance experienced by Black women. The short is scored by a combination of African chanting and jazz, creating a soundscape that is both strongly tied to location and able to convey her individual expression and freedom. McCullough makes frequent use of superimposition, in order to emphasise the relationship between the different gestures of the ritual, as well as to highlight the spiritual trance the woman is in as she reclaims physical space in the world. The film eventually culminates with the woman urinating in a field, presumably finishing the ‘water ritual’ of the title. As well as using her bodily functions to literally mark out territory in a land that only partially accepts her, this act also subverts the typically passive cinematic depiction of black women’s bodies. In filming herself committing an act that viewers may find shocking or offensive, McCullough is using Black Cinema to regain autonomy, asserting her physical presence through a ritual deeply rooted in her inherited culture.
Following on from Water Ritual #1, McCullough continued her examination of the relationship between black displacement and ritual practices through the documentary Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space. In this two-part video series, McCullough meets and interviews other African American artists living in LA, asking about their creative processes and relationship to rituals, and reflecting on her own work through a process of mutual artistic reflection. The film even opens with altered footage from Water Ritual #1, new psychedelic video effects having been placed onto images from the original film, suggesting an ever-evolving relationship to her art.
The aesthetic of the remainder of the documentary is minimalist, McCullough using a handheld camera to document the dilapidated urban spaces that other black artists occupy. Rather than interviewing them in talking-head segments, this insistent depiction of the physicality of their art ensures that the material conditions of being a black artist are always at the forefront of the discussion.
Most importantly, McCullough uses the documentary form to provide greater visibility for the work of black female artists who have been displaced from mainstream artistic spaces, providing an uncompromising platform for them to showcase their work. In doing so, she is creating a complex image of how women are able to express themselves as artists, best exemplified by her interview with Betye Saar, who defines artistic rites of passage as ‘what feels right’. By giving credibility and weight to the subjectivity of black women, this documentary uses a low budget and distinct aesthetic as a space for uplifting the work of other female Black artists.
Alile Sharon Larkin
While Dash’s films examine systemic barriers and stereotyping of black women, and McCullough’s look at the physical and social displacement they experience, Alile Sharon Larkin’s work is concerned with the psychological neo-colonisation of black women and girls. This idea is best encapsulated by a Malcolm X quote: ‘if you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing’. Throughout her filmic career, Larkin has depicted black women’s struggle for physical agency, particularly regarding their appearance and careers, and the white-enforced self-loathing that creates a barrier to emancipation. Her films use the motif of afro hair as a signifier of Black women’s relationship with their racial identity, an idea that has become more broadly used in the mainstream in recent films like Nappily Ever After and Hair Love, in which young Black women gain confidence by embracing their natural hair texture.
In her earliest work, her student UCLA film The Kitchen, she depicts a black maid who has been sent to a mental institution, the first shot showing her being lead down a white corridor by white workers, helpless and indignant in between them. Larkin breaks conventional continuity throughout the film, conveying the disjointed perspective of the protagonist, which has been fragmented by racial violence and oppression. There is then a cut to the same woman looking at herself in a mirror, forcing a sleek wig over her afro. This gives a sense of social isolation, and the relationship between the woman and her reflection conveys her self-loathing, particularly as she smiles when her natural hair is covered.
It is eventually revealed that she has been sectioned for abusing her daughter, violently attempting to straighten her hair with a hot comb after envying the straight hair of her white employers. This exemplifies Larkin’s concerns surrounding the generational effects of neo-colonialist thought, and how internalised racism can be passed down through mundane routines, the extreme example in The Kitchen serving as a metaphor for this communal self-harm.
After changing her direction in more recent years towards children’s media, having directed several live-action music videos for children’s songs, Larkin has utilised the medium of animation to depict black womanhood and girlhood. In my opinion, this is a perfect match of political content and medium, as animation has been historically considered an inferior method of creative expression when compared to live-action cinema, despite its wide artistic potential. In her short animated film Dreadlocks and the Three Bears, she reinterprets the classic story Goldilocks and the Three Bears through a uniquely black cinematic lens, changing the setting to the Caribbean and the protagonist to a young black girl with ‘cinnamon-brown’ skin amongst other alterations.
As suggested by the title, the girl in Larkin’s story has dreadlocks rather than blonde hair, subverting Eurocentric notions of white beauty by idealising a hairstyle looked down upon in America for its association with African and Caribbean cultures. There are other adaptational changes to the work designed to make the story more relatable for the target audience of African American children – porridge is replaced by ‘cheese grits’, for instance. The animation was achieved by using cut out construction paper, a visibly low budget and easily achieved aesthetic that may have been chosen for its accessibility and easy emulation, implicitly demonstrating a new way for young children to make their own stories.
Breaking New Ground
The films of the LA rebellion have not broken into mainstream appreciation as other modes of African American cinema like Blaxploitation have, in part due to their obtuse avant-garde aesthetics and lack of widespread theatrical distribution. Indeed, even when writing this article in 2020, many of the films discussed were hard to track down online in their entirety. But this creative independence from white mainstream screens is what has allowed the female LA rebellion filmmakers to provide effective and progressive forms of representation for black people other than straight men.
By exploring the nuances of being part of multiple oppressed groups, these female filmmakers acknowledge the intersections of prejudice in their work. Ultimately, the Black Cinema that these women helped pioneer is a unique and revolutionary space, dedicated to validating the experiences of every kind of black person.