From L.A. Hotbed, Black Filmmakers' Creativity Flowered

"Killer of Sheep" director Charles Burnett in 1977. (Milestone Films)

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

TO BEST UNDERSTAND "KILLER OF SHEEP," Charles Burnett's masterful 1977 feature debut, is to understand the context in which it was made.

In 1967, after studying electrical engineering at Los Angeles Community College, Burnett arrived at UCLA to study film. For the next 10 years, UCLA students would develop a fecund, cosmopolitan and politically engaged movement that came to be unofficially known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers.

One year after Burnett, Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker who had lived in Chicago, arrived at UCLA. Together with Larry Clark and others, they formed the nucleus of a group of emerging African American, African, Hispanic and Native American artists who, informed by the political events of the 1960s, as well as art films from Europe, Latin America and Africa, were searching for new ways of cinematic storytelling.

Although they were studying in the belly of the beast, the UCLA students "were not thinking of Hollywood," Gerima, who now teaches at Howard, recalls. While George Lucas was studying at the more commercially oriented USC film school across town, Gerima, Burnett and their contemporaries were studying the anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon and watching such classics as "Memories of Underdevelopment" from Cuba.

In addition to Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," Gerima's promising student film, "Bush Mama," emerged from the UCLA school, as well as Clark's "Passing Through." (Julie Dash, who directed 1991's "Daughters of the Dust," was part of the movement's "second wave.")

For a decade, the UCLA school was something of a lefty Golden Age of cinema, with the young filmmakers working on each other's films, then repairing to a restaurant in Chinatown to debate into the wee hours. "We were literally arguing about, 'What is a frame?' 'What is a shot?' " Gerima says. "We were so [eager] not to be influenced by the white film teachers and the dictatorship of white cinema. We were trying to forge our own culture."

-- Ann Hornaday


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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