African American Cinema


As these veterans of the cinema created socially significant feature films that were aesthetically grounded in African American (and in some cases African) cultural forms, a new group of filmmakers would emerge, trained in university film schools located primarily in Los Angeles. Their educations in graduate programs went beyond technical training. Their "coming-of age" coincided with the push for ethnic studies programs on campuses around the country, nationalist movements in the Asian/Pacific American, African American, Latino, and Native American communities, and global struggles against neocolonialism and for independence. Armed with a knowledge of "traditional" film history now infused with an introduction to the Third Cinema movement and exposure to revolutionary films from Latin America and Africa, these filmmakers took advantage of their "outsider" positioning, reinvigorating the push for a politically driven cinema, in a movement that became known as the "L.A. Rebellion." The first group of graduates from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) included Billy Woodberry, best known for Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), and Larry Clark, director of Passing Through (1977). The two most noted, Charles Burnett (b. 1944) and Haile Gerima (b. 1946), became leaders of the contemporary African American independent cinema movement.

Charles Burnett, who started his career as a cinematographer and camera operator for his contemporaries, is considered to be one of the most important American filmmakers. Burnett has made more than fourteen films, both within and outside the Hollywood industry, as well as several works for television. His most acclaimed film, Killer of Sheep (1977), is considered the first neorealist masterpiece of African American cinema. Selected into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and recognized internationally, the film, completed in 1973 as his MFA thesis for UCLA but not released until 1977, uses poetic imagery to detail the day-to-day struggle of the working poor who, despite their efforts and dreams, are caught by a social structure that benefits from their oppression. When not writing and directing, Burnett often supports the work of other progressive filmmakers, among them the New York–based Korean American Dai Sil Kim Gibson, Julie Dash (b. 1952), and Haile Gerima (from Ethiopia).

Haile Gerima, also a professor at Howard University, remains one of the most politically committed African American filmmakers. His films do not just depict oppression, they theorize historical and global conditions, interrogating not only what, but why. His works genuinely function as "counter cinema," linking the storytelling function in film with African cultural and aesthetic traditions to advance consciousness and politicize audiences. As was the case for Burnett, it was Gerima's MFA thesis film at UCLA, Bush Mama (1979), that brought him wide attention. Like Killer of Sheep , Bush Mama focuses on poverty in the Los Angeles area. Using a dynamic visual style paired with a powerful use of sound, Gerima presents a challenging narrative that raises the consciousness of the audience simultaneously with that of the film's protagonist.

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