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An Aesthetic Appropriate to Conditions:
Killer of Sheep, (Neo)Realism, and the Documentary Impulse
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| Figure 1 |
Stan in the slaughterhouse, from Killer of Sheep, dir. Charles Burnett (1977). Video frame enlargement.
Scooter: You can be a man if you can, Stan.
On August 11, 1965, violence broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles, the result of an incident between officers from the LAPD and an African American man named Marquette Frye. Faced with another instance of police brutality, the predominantly black community rebelled against the police presence, the prevailing poverty, and the government disinterest that had long defined and limited life in Southcentral Los Angeles. Watts burned over the next six days as the nation and the world viewed televised coverage of the rebellion while hearing reports of rioters "run[ing] loose, looting, burning, and rampaging."1 Following the Watts rebellion, urban insurrections occurred again in 1967 and 1968 in cities including Newark, Detroit, and Chicago. Unlike earlier racially-motivated uprisings—from the teens or the forties, for example—the urban rebellions from the sixties were nationally televised. They acted as a warp in the United States' racial repressed by bringing to the surface [End Page 21] white America's deeply-buried fears of African American aggression with footage remarkably resembling Birth of a Nation's(D. W. Griffith, 1915) infamous images of Reconstruction-era looting and rampaging. For white suburbia these images defined the black ghetto.2 The broadcasts served a different purpose, however, for many African American spectators who saw resistance to the specific wrongs, such as poverty, decay, and unchecked police brutality, faced by residents of the inner city.3 In contrast to earlier problem picture depictions of race relations that graced movie screens in the fifties and early sixties or news coverage of Civil Rights protests, the newscasts redefined the images of African Americans on screen for both blacks and whites.
By the end of the sixties, televisual images of inner city anger and despair were supplemented by new representations of African American city space introduced into mainstream cinematic discourse in the form of the short-lived, though influential, blaxploitation, or black action, genre. Serving as the precursor to the genre, Melvin Van Peebles' independent feature, Sweet Sweet—back's Baadasssss Song (1971), introduced many of blaxploitation's conventions, such as an empowered black masculinity, on-location shooting in recognizable city spaces, and a sense of temporal immediacy aided by costume, dialogue, and musical soundtrack. More "mainstream" blaxploitation vehicles, such as Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971),quickly appropriated these features into their narratives. Inspired by the financial success of Sweetback, the Shafts, Superflies, and Dolemites that followed became box office hits, especially with an audience that was primarily (though not limited to) young, urban, African American men. At the same time however, their images, like Sweetback's before them, were highly contested, as both black and white critics opposed the films' glorification of criminal life. Soon, religious and political groups such as the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB) were demanding more "realistic" representations of black life in film, and the pressure exerted on the industry by these groups (as well as an industrial shift towards blockbuster and crossover films) resulted in the eventual disappearance of blaxploitation productions.
Emerging on the periphery of both Hollywood and blaxploitation was a group of filmmakers working under the auspices of the film program in the Theater Arts Department at UCLA. This group, variously referred to as the "L.A. [End Page 22] Rebellion" and the "L.A. School of Filmmakers," was made up of African and African American graduate film students and included Haile Gerima, Ntongela Masilela, Larry Clark, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Julie Dash, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Charles Burnett, among others. Unlike many of the African American filmmakers working within the mainstream, members of the L.A. School expressed an explicitly political agenda that extended beyond profit-making and...