The timing could not be better for director Zeinabu irene Davis’ documentary Spirits of Rebellion, a thrilling look at the origins, cultural production, and legacy of the LA Rebellion – the cinematic arts movement that flourished at UCLA from 1970-1992.
Both the #OscarsSoWhite controversy surrounding the upcoming Academy Awards and the contrived rightwing outrage over Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance underscore that while there’s an endless supply of commentary and commentators on issues of race and cultural production, intelligent conversation is a dependably scarce commodity. Davis’ film – part history lesson, part reminder of the looped and repeating cycles of these conversations – is not only deeply informative, but hugely inspiring. For all but the most dedicated film scholars, cultural amnesia and dedicated erasure (and overreliance on pop culture and its gatekeepers for information) can make it seem like resistance has been scant and creativity in the face of staggering obstacles a non-starter. Spirits proves just how false those notions are.
Though largely associated with black filmmakers (from Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, and Charles Burnett to Davis herself), the LA Rebellion came out of UCLA’s Ethno Communications Program that facilitated the work of filmmakers of color and was specifically founded to teach film to students of all colors – Black, Asian, and Chicano. Spirits interviews many of the program’s non-black filmmakers, and shows clips from their work throughout its 100 minutes; its primary focus, though, is on the sociopolitical conditions that gave rise to the program and to the political underpinnings and aesthetic innovations of its black filmmakers. Davis’ voice-over maps out the social upheaval of the 1960s and the reasons behind it (centuries-deep racial inequality, endemic police brutality, inner cities destabilized by the flight of industry, etc.) which gives the viewer the large-scale political framework of the filmmakers, as well as their fuel and much of their subject matter. As Davis notes, the common denominator among all the filmmakers was a sophistication of technique and an unwavering foundation of political commitment.
A generous serving of film clips is drool-inducing, and a tad frustrating. While the UCLA Film & Television Archive is working to preserve and restore the work of the LA Rebellion (as well as the works by non-black filmmakers in the film), access to the films is still limited so far. The viewers’ appetite for them is stoked even more by the insights offered in interviews with the filmmakers. Clyde Taylor, in noting that he and many other filmmakers weren’t keen on the LA Rebellion moniker (“There is a way in which being militant can be cartoonish”), leads right into Pierre Desir’s powerful statement, “I get impatient with the idea that we have to react to, as opposed to simply express ourselves. I don’t see that as a rebellion. I could see it as a revolution.” Don Amis, in outlining the frustrations of being a black student studying and making art in environments that bill themselves as liberal, says simply, “I can deal with the racist because I know where he’s coming from, but I can’t deal with a [white] liberal because you don’t know where he’s coming from and he’ll stab you in the back every chance he gets.”
The importance of dialogue between artists across cultural ports is stressed as students speak of being influenced by Asian, African and Cuban cinema. (There’s a great old clip of the legendary Ousmane Semebene being asked whether or not European audiences can understand his film, to which he replies, “Let’s be clear. Europe is not my center. Europe is on the outskirts.”) Julie Dash speaks on the heterogeneous pool of influences that fed her and other filmmakers while Barbara McCullough explains how her entire worldview was reshaped by seeing Sembene’s classic film Black Girl. And a film professor laughingly explains how she took one student’s attempted dismissal of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (“It looks like poor people’s home movies”) and now uses it as a description of how and why the film is both beautiful and important.
As film clips flow by, with critique and commentary accompanying them, the film both explicitly and implicitly inserts itself into current conversations about identity, politics and the making of art. It will especially be a tonic for those caught in the racialized conundrum of the age-old war between art and commerce. It doesn’t necessarily gives answers, but it helps shape smarter, tougher questions.