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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 5:00AM   |  5 comments
Penitentiary

Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive

This week I had the pleasure of meeting Jamaa Fanaka in Hollywood when he paid me a visit, because he had agreed to put his films on deposit at UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Jamaa is an African-American filmmaker in Los Angeles, who directed the hugely successful Penitentiary (1979), followed by Penitentiary II (1982) and III (1987). Like his earlier features, Emma Mae  (1976) aka Black Sister’s Revenge and Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) aka Soul Vengence, Fanaka’s films play with the conventions of  “Blaxploitation,” while simultaneously commenting on the genre in a highly self-reflexive genre. 

The term “Blaxploitation” was originally dreamed up by Variety for a wave of Hollywood films with all-black casts, often centered on crime, drugs, and prostitution that began with Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). During the 1970s, Hollywood produced more that seventy Blaxploitation films, many directed by black directors, and therefore a genuine expression of African-American popular culture. But there were also many “pimps n hoes” quickies, shot in the Philippines.

Ironically, Jamaa Fanaka belonged to a unique group of African-American film students at UCLA in the 1970s and early 1980s that film historian Clyde Taylor has labeled the “L.A. Rebellion,” because they specifically reacted against mainstream Hollywood cinema’s hijacking of African-American life to create a stereotyped and largely negative cinematic image. Indeed, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers identified themselves as the first sustained and geographically specific effort in the United States by a group of black film artists working with a common purpose to forge a cinema practice that would be responsive to the lives and concerns of African American communities and the African diaspora. The most prominent of the group are Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Ben Caldwell, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Jacqueline Frazier, Barbara McCullough, Zeinabu Irene Davis, and Carroll Parrott Blue.

Surprisingly, neither UCLA Film & Television Archive nor the film school had ever attempted to stay in touch with or collect the films of this group of filmmakers, nor had there been any sustained attempt at historisizing the “movement.” Only a few isolated film titles had entered into the Archive.

In 2009, we decided to change that and begin a truly holistic research and preservation project, by bringing the “L.A. Rebellion” home.

It is the first time the Archive is not waiting passively for films and television to “walk in the door”, but rather is going out and saving a specific group of films we believe are important. We have assembled a team of scholars, filmmakers and professionals to research existing film and paper collections in libraries and archives; conduct and capture oral histories with participating filmmakers; collect film elements for conservation, restoration and exhibition; collect paper documents from filmmakers for the special collections library; publish a book which will contextualize the L.A. Rebellion and frame it in relation to its time period and parallel developments in film and the arts; strike many new prints for a massive retrospective exhibition in Fall 2011. We have received initial funding from the Getty Foundation, since the “L. A. Rebellion” film exhibition will be screened in the context of the Los Angeles wide art exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time.” 

I first talked to Jamaa last Fall on the phone and then began an email correspondence, when I became “a friend for life.” When the sixty-something filmmaker arrived at the Archive last Monday, he had a lovely young women on each arm and appeared to be totally in his element. They were Professors Jacqueline Stewart and Allyson Field, two co-curators on the L.A. Rebellion project, who had met Jamaa previously at Roscoe’s Waffles ‘n’ Chicken. Interestingly, like so many of his film school colleagues, Fanaka had financed his films independently and thus knew where his pre-print elements (negatives) were stored, something many mainstream director’s don’t know. So Jamma’s main concern was that UCLA would not only store the films, but actually restore them, the way we have previously restored Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). Happily, Jamaa Fanaka’s films constitute the first collection to be placed in the Archive.

Given the fact that we have now identified more than fifty different individuals in the L.A. Rebellion, our journey (and our fund-raising!) have only just begun.  

 


5 Comments

As most archives are nationalistic, or regionalistic, I often wondered if there were any archives that dealt with works of a very specific nature. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear that your archive will be collecting this particular group of films.

Out of curiousity, how do these film reject Blaxploitation/mainstream cinema? Is it only in terms of content or also in style etc?

Most middle-class African-Americans rejected the image of themselves, as portrayed in Hollywood "Blaxploitation" films, which often reduced black life to depictions of the ghetto, drugs and prostitutes. The students at UCLA hoped to show life of real families, whether working class or lower middle class or middle class. To do so they looked to the style of Italian Neo-realism and Brazilain Cinema Nuovo, rather than Hollywood's gangster genre aesthetics.

I would just like to say that what you are doing for the L.A. Rebellion movement is very exciting and impressive!

I think it is important not just to put the films into storage, but to contextualise them through literature and even oral histories, which I feel is lacking in Singapore.

We always hear of films going round the film festivals circuit, but never why.

I think I have said this before, but I really believe that moving image archives must become "performative", if they are to remain relevant to society. That means that process and product, films and their makers, documents and analysis, should be visible to our constituencies, available on site and in the internet. Available not just to passively consume, but to study, play with, remix.

I am very interested to hear about this. I'm a fan of blaxploitation however I enjoy the more experimental, sometimes understated works more than the typical pimp/drug dealer yarn. I love the movie Killer of Sheep as well, and I'd love to hear about other movies that came out of the "L.A. Rebellion". Could anyone well versed in these film recommend me a good place to start?



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