A new cinema: decolonizing film language in the L.A. Rebellion

This week, Film Forum program assistant Lauren Hohle discusses how the L.A. Rebellion film movement created a “new” black cinema. . .

Film image from director Haile Gerima's "Child of Resistance."

The L.A. Rebellion film series (running through March 24 at Northwest Film Forum) was paired during its initial UCLA run with the tagline: “Creating a new black cinema.” There are the obvious reasons that make the need for a black cinema great: underrepresentation in roles behind the camera (and in front of the camera) and the negative stereotypes that blacks have been historically cast in.  Yet I’m interested in the word “new” here.  And while the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion might not have chosen these words themselves, I’m interested in the ideology that made them look for “new cinema,” a cinema not only inclusive of blacks, but one not modeled after Hollywood.

Frantz Fanon famously wrote about the “decolonization of the mind,” a goal in the wake of colonialism to stop thinking in the language (and therefore terms or framework) dictated by the oppressor.  To him, “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”  To Fanon, language matters.  Even film language.

Deleuze presents the idea in Cinema 1 that, “. . .the American cinema constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundament film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization, whose first version was provided by Griffith.” D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) invented modern conventional film grammar. It included establishing shots of a setting, shot-reverse-shot dialogue, cross-cutting for parallel action, and a camera that does not cross the 180 degree axis line. For those unfamiliar, don’t feel ashamed. This style is supposed to be seamless.

The Birth of a Nation heroicizes the Ku Klux Klan. Fanon would argue that because our standard film form came from a racist film, the form itself is embedded with white-power beliefs; standard editing is the language of the colonizer.

I was struck by the totality of rebellion in Haile Gerima’s Child of Resistance (1972)— in both its form and content.  Born out of a dream Gerima had after seeing Angela Davis arrested, the film explores the psychological mindscape of an incarcerated woman using surreal and absurd elements.  Oscillating between her jail cell and a carnivalesque commercial space, the film visualizes the shackles that exist both in and outside of prison.  It’s the closest I’ve seen to Joycean filmmaking: it has the absurdity of Ulysses’ Circe chapter, a stream-of-consciousness narration, and most importantly, it assaults standardized language.

Child of Resistance is a film about class struggle, justice, consumerism and the prison industrial complex, but overall, by including all of these issues, the focus becomes what the main character rejects.  The film ends with four men smashing prison bars, handcuffs and chains with sledgehammers.  I like to think of Griffith’s film language as a link in the chain.

Lauren Hohle earned an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts from the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies in “Framing and Narrative: Creative Writing, Film, and Social Justice.”  This gave her an alternative film education that focused on revolutionary and guerrilla filmmaking instead of the Hollywood model.  She is a Film Forum volunteer and the program assistant for the L.A. Rebellion series.

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