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The New Black Film Rebellion

When Angela Davis was being held as a political prisoner in the New York Women’s House of Detention in 1970, few activities interested her less than watching the “insipid Hollywood movies” the jail projected for inmates during recreational hours. Considering the kinds of movies Hollywood was producing in this period, it’s easy to see why a Black communist and activist like Davis would be dismissive of them. Even in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, it was rare to find films which honestly grappled with the issues facing poor, Black, and brown Americans. And in the few cases where Hollywood did acknowledge the rising Black Power movement, like 1971’s "Shaft," the political objectives of Black Power got sidelined in favor of sensationalist criminal stereotypes.

It has now been 50 years since Angela Davis’ imprisonment, and cinema’s relationship to Black radical politics has gotten both more elaborate and more contentious. American filmmakers now have more options to depict radical themes in their works, and Black filmmakers in particular have a bigger opportunity than they ever have before to make their voices and perspectives heard. Earlier this year, two films featuring sympathetic portrayals of Black radicals and revolutionaries, Regina King’s "One Night in Miami" and Shaka King’s "Judas and the Black Messiah," were released by major studios and recognized by the Academy Awards. Years after #OscarSoWhite, it seems like Hollywood might finally be ready to embrace the radical wing of the Black experience.

Then again, the film industry has gone down a similar path before. In 1992, Spike Lee’s biopic of "Malcolm X" was widely seen and received numerous accolades, but the film did not contribute to a surge in radical activism in its own time. The early ‘90s were a period of unprecedented interest and funding in films made by and for Black people, yet that era was immediately followed by one defined by neoliberal apathy, an era where the 1994 Crime Bill was passed with overwhelming support. And in the short amount of time it took Hollywood executives to decide that Black film was no longer trendy, the industry shut out its Black filmmakers once again.

What makes the current Black film renaissance any different? Is Black film here to stay, or is the film industry simply riding the coattails of a bandwagon that started with Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance and got solidified by Marvel’s "Black Panther"? Is Hollywood’s recent interest in Black revolutionary iconography indicative of popular support for a Black revolution? Is the revolution finally being televised, streamed, and released into theaters?

"Judas and the Black Messiah"

Obviously, to attribute any revolutionary impetus to corporations which exist to provide mass entertainment would be misguided. The demands of commercial film production run counter to the leftist aims of Black radicalism. All that being said, there are powerful signs that the current Black American film wave could help alter the political landscape in a way that previous waves weren’t able to.

For one thing, the current Black film renaissance is coinciding with the rise of a political mass movement in support of Black lives. A growing number of people are recognizing systemic injustice and are anxious to do something about it. These people won’t be distracted by the nepenthean fantasies that mainstream American cinema has been tailored to provide. Just like how the initial Black Power movement gave rise to several Black arts movements, the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding more narratives which suit its goals.

This demand is part of the reason behind the mainstream embrace of films like "One Night in Miami," "Judas and the Black Messiah," and even Jordan Peele’s "Get Out." But the demand hasn’t stopped there. Advancements in online film exhibition have made it so that more and more independent filmmakers of activist backgrounds are utilizing the medium to drive action and reflection in their respective spaces. This is how the current Black film movement can grow to sustain itself: Black radical art encouraging Black radical action, which in turn creates the need for even more art which can tell the stories of said actions.

Phillip Youmans and Ja’Tovia Gary are two independent filmmakers who are addressing politics from Black radical perspectives in their films, and both of them were kind enough to speak to me about radical politics in their work and in the industry at large. A New Orleans native, Youmans is following up his debut feature, "Burning Cane," with a movie about the founding of the New Orleans Black Panthers.

“It isn’t a biopic at all. 'Magnolia Bloom' is inspired by true events, but it’s crafted,” Youmans said about his Panthers film, "Magnolia Bloom," which is set to begin shooting in Louisiana this Fall. “It takes place in late ’60s New Orleans, and it embodies the spirit of the brave young men and women who were a part of the New Orleans Panthers, but it’s a story that really is crafted to speak to now.”

Phillip Youmans

So far, Youmans says he’s encouraged by number of recent films which have depicted Black Panthers or Black Power in some form. “To me, I feel like you’re getting different things with all these different pieces; it’s creating a mosaic of what the Black Power experience is. It feels like we’re really building up an appetite and curiosity into that cultural era, specifically.” With all the increased coverage of the subject matter, Youmans felt even more of a responsibility to represent the movement in a specific light, especially since the NOLA Panthers aren’t as well-known as their analogues in California, New York, and Chicago. While he was still in high school, Youmans got to know some of the surviving NOLA Panthers and their stories have formed the basis of "Magnolia Bloom"'s screenplay. “My responsibility is to uphold the heroism and the truth of their experiences. I became sort of enamored with them because they showed me so much about what the Black Power movement was about, and I learned it was about self-love as much as anything else.”

Ja'Tovia Gary

Dallas-raised filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary has crafted several short films and documentaries which chronicle the imagination and legacy of Black women artists and activists, and she is currently working on an autobiographical feature. Gary was pleasantly forthright when I asked her about the radical themes in her work. “I’m interested in the liberation of Black people and all oppressed people around the globe, so that includes liberation from the various systems that enact violence and harm in our lives,” she said. “There’s all types of work I want to do, and it may not be overtly political, but like WEB DuBois says, all art is political, whether you want it to be or not. Whether it’s overt, or whether it’s very subtle and covert. Because we’re talking about life—because we’re talking about people, ultimately we’re going to be talking power.”

Gary’s films are as radical in form as they are in subject matter. The director/editor juxtaposes archival and contemporary footage to draw a continuum between the radical actions of the past and the comforts and struggles of the present. Her film "The Giverny Document" utilizes a Nina Simone performance, alludes to Claude Monet, and presents direct footage from the night of Philando Castile’s murder to make a mesmerizing collage. “[The] reason why I’m doing that is to really expand people’s ideas and perceptions around reality and what can be, what is possible,” Gary says. “That’s the whole point of the work, it’s a kind of radical reimagining of what reality can be. So, in some ways people are watching a movie, but in other ways, maybe they are reimagining what the world can look like, what these systems that we spoke about earlier, what can replace these systems that cause so much harm.”

Gary remains skeptical about greater industry trends regarding Black political art. “I think we have to be very careful with those types of films, especially the ones that are based on real people with real ideas that were radical.” Gary and I entered a specific discussion about "Judas and the Black Messiah," which dramatized BPP Chairman Fred Hampton’s murder. In leftist circles, the film has been criticized for sanitizing Hampton’s life and socialist politics for mass consumption. Gary told me: 

“Fred Hampton was someone who was considered dangerous by the FBI and the CIA and his local police department, which was why they murdered him in cold blood. So you have to wonder what it means when Hollywood—which for all intents and purposes is the propaganda arm of the state—what their purpose is in recuperating someone like a Fred Hampton? And furthermore, can we trust their rendering of his life and his political beliefs and work? So it’s complicated for me. I think that what happens is, you put Fred Hampton’s name on millions of people’s tongue, which is a good thing. But you, in some ways, have to narrow down and in some ways distort his vision, his philosophy, his legacy, because it’s Hollywood. It’s gotta be for everybody, right? We gotta make as much money as possible.” 

Gary made it clear that the problem is systemic. “["Judas" director] Shaka King is a wonderful director. I think it’s the structure—the system that you enter into—you can’t change that thing from the inside. You get in there and you have to bend. So, it is what it is. You make concessions. You decide, you have to choose what you’re going to be okay with and what you’re not going to be okay with. And that’s something for the young people to really think about when they’re making decisions for the type of art they want to make and where they’re going to make it.”

Ephraim Asili

For any filmmaker, it isn’t easy to carve out a space where challenging or subversive ideas can thrive. Nevertheless, there’s an interesting new generation of Black indie filmmakers who are managing to do that in various ways. In addition to Youmans and Gary, Philadelphia-based filmmaker Ephraim Asili is using experimental techniques as a way to nudge viewers out of complacency. Asili’s "The Inheritance" is a mixture of documentary and narrative, serving as both a document of Black radical thought and activism, as well as a vessel to convey the discourse of Black radicalism. Throughout the film, Asili uses closeups of foundational Black Marxist and nationalist texts and archival footage to create a cinematic reader of radical literature. Asili also drew from Philadelphia’s long-lived Black separatist group MOVE group for inspiration, and several members appear in the film to give interviews.

For more formally conventional narrative films, look towards the works of Nia DaCosta, Shatara Michelle Ford, and Merawi Gerima, which use realism to highlight pressing contemporary issues and expose the systems which perpetuate them. DaCosta’s "Little Woods" touches on health care, poverty, mass incarceration, and women’s right to bodily autonomy and lets viewers understand how capitalism has basically weaponized these things. Ford’s "Test Pattern" exposes the inadequacy of the criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute the rape of Black women. Gerima’s autobiographical "Residue" depicts gentrification in his native city of Washington D.C. None of these three films depict Black radical activism directly, but they do commit to one of the main tenets of radical film: to identify material issues and encourage action and reflection.

Many of the Black filmmakers who are turning film into a radical space today are taking inspiration from the Los Angeles School film movement of the 1960s-'80s. Better known as the “L.A. Rebellion,” the L.A. School of Black Filmmakers was a wide-ranging collective of Black independent filmmakers including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough, Ben Caldwell, and Zeinabu irene Davis. A loose assortment of artists engaging in various subjects and styles, their common goal was to create a tradition of Black American cinema that would be distinct from Hollywood and the racist stereotypes it reproduced. The rise of the L.A. Rebellion coincided with the rise of the blaxploitation genre, and although there several blaxploitation works subverted the traditional race commentary, the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion were unsatisfied with the commercially-driven, stereotype-infused nature of most blaxploitation. Instead, the L.A. Rebellion drew from the Third Cinema movement of Latin America, the contemporary Black Arts movement, and the works of Black American poets and novelists to create new film styles and tell stories that authentically centered Black life.

It took several years for the films of the L.A. Rebellion to achieve widespread recognition, and most of them still haven’t, but heightened interest in Black film has worked in favor of bringing attention to these seminal works. One byproduct of this is that filmmakers who were active in the L.A. Rebellion are finally receiving funding to work on more films. Julie Dash, the writer/director of "Illusions" and "Daughters of the Dust," was recently slated to make her big return to features with a biopic of Angela Davis. Another byproduct is that more and more filmmakers are appreciating L.A. Rebellion innovations and are getting inspired to advance its radical aims.

Sankofa

"Sankofa" director Haile Gerima—father to Merawi Gerima and one of the leading members of the L.A. Rebellion—identified a core obstacle to the establishment of a genuinely revolutionary Black cinema movement in America. He called it the “triangular interest groups,” referring to interdependent yet opposing corners: the filmmakers and investors versus the audience versus the critics and activists. In the commercial film pipeline, the three interest groups have specific roles to play and can never step on each other’s toes. Taking inspiration from Third Cinema, Gerima proposed that Black filmmakers would have to demolish the barriers between the three interest groups of film. In an essay titled Triangular Cinema, Gerima wrote that “African American film-makers whose main interest is the advancement of visual culture intended for social change must create a new relationship between all parties concerned in the triangular interest groups. If a new relationship is to emerge, when the opportunity arrives to congregate within the confines of a theatre the very structure of a given film should skillfully invoke collective, active participation, instead of passive resignation.”

A new Black film movement will not survive if its films inspire passive resignation. Its films must aim to provoke passionate outcry from progressive supporters, and possibly violent retaliation from reactionaries. Its films must be willing to be part of a radical dialogue, and not a monograph. And the films will have to utilize and acknowledge the imagination of the collective rather than the individual. If Black film can continue to embrace these tenets, we just might have a new rebellion on our hands.

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