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Screenplays of the African American Experience.

Midway between the recent explosion of New Jack, Hollywood, "home-boy" potboilers such as New Jack City, Hangin' with the Homeboys, and Juice, and the theatrical release of films such as Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust and Charles Lane's True Identity, a "new" book about black cinema appeared on the market. Seeking to document the singular achievement of six independent film practitioners, as well as the oppositional cultural practices of a cadre of visual artists creating works in contradistinction to the hegemonic Hollywood apparatus, Klotman's book of screenplays was the first of its kind. Showcasing works produced specifically by the African American sector of the black diaspora as opposed to either its Afircan, Afro-Caribbean, or Black British workshop components, the compilation contains scripts for dramatic shorts and feature films written and directed by African Americans in the '70s and '80s, capturing two decades of black cinema history before the advent of what film critic Armond White has referred to as the "Class of '91" school of black filmmakers. The book features tributes to deceased pioneer independents Bill Gunn (1929-1989) and Kathleen Collins-Prettyman (1942-1988), as well as screenplays for Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess (1973), Collins's Losing Ground (1982), Julie Dash's Illusions (1983), Alile Sharon Larkin's A Different Image (1981), Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977), and Charles Lane's Sidewalk Stories (1989).

Independently produced by Kelly-Jordan Enterprises after the aborted release of Gunn's first feature film, Stop! (1970), Ganja and Hess marked Gunn's debut an "auteur" film director to be reckoned with. Acclaimed by critic James Monaco as the Invisible Man of black independent cinema, Ganja and Hess holds a hallowed place in the annals of black film history--a tour-de-force which Gunn wrote and directed, and in which he starred. Under the pretext of being a vampire flick (and originally based on a script entitled The Vampires of Harlem), Ganja and Hess is actually a multilayered, postmodern work informed by pre-Judeo-Christian mythology, African ancestral-based ritual and mysticism, and European existentialism. Drawing on the filmic discourse of horror, cinema verite, and surrealism, the film dramatizes the collective identity crisis of a black middle-class male's attempts to come to terms with his Anglo-American origins, African racial past, and Western cultural identity.

In an era in the early '70s described by many as the "black penetration" of Hollywood, when black male filmmakers such as Gordon Parks, Sr., Melvin Van Peebles, and Ossie Davis were gaining access to an industry heretofore prohibited to them, the film was erroneously branded as "blaxploitation" by derisive critics, only to be heralded as "cinematic art" by Josephine Baker at the Cannes International Film Festival in France. When Kelly-Jordan Enterprises went bankrupt, the film was sold to Heritage Films, where it was re-edited as Blood Couple--a title bearing little resemblance to Gunn's original. Fortunately, the original 35mm version of the film remains intact at the Museum of Modern Art, while Pearl Bowser of the New York-based African Diaspora Images distributes a 16mm pritn which is also available in videocassette.

If there were ever a prototypic black woman filmmaker with a "black feminist" sensibility avant la lettre, it was Kathleen Collins. Uncompromising, intrepid, and consciously iconoclastic, Collins was one of the first to point out the phallocentric underpinnings in "blaxploitation," adventure/action films by black male filmmakers working inside Hollywood, as well as the misogyny inherent in works by many of her black male independent contemporaries. One of the first black women intellectuals to deploy feminist film critique as a radical, subversive practice, Collins had a prolific career encompassing plays, essays, short stories, screenplays, and translations. In her writings, one finds the raison d'etre for the development of an aesthetic for filmic works specifically by, for, and about black women, before the notion was undertaken by black women filmmakers such as Julie Dash.

Klotman's book includes a draft of the "director's script" from Collins's incisive experimental feature film Losing Ground, completed while she was a professor of cinema at the City College of New York, and co-produced by her friend and lifelong collaborator, cinematographer Ronald K. Gray. One of the earliest feature films to be written, produced, and directed by a black woman, it was never released theatrically. Drawing on the masculinist tradition of Western philosophy--including Sartre, Camus, Plato, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, and Descartes--as a subtext, Losing Ground systematically deconstructs notions of race, class, and gender as it explores black feminine ontology via a middle-class black female protagonist. Utilizing a postmodern "bricolage" technique reminiscent of a French New Novel a la Marguerite Duras, Collins examines the life of a black female philosophy professor who simultaneously doubles as both a wife and an actress. A milestone in the history of black cinema aesthetics and black feminist flimmaking practices, Collins's achievement in Losing Ground reverberates in works by present-day women filmmakers such as Kathe Sandler, Ayoka Chenzira, Michelle Parkerson, and Alile Sharon Larkin, as well as Afro-Puerto Rican director Joseph Vasquez (Hangin' with the Homeboys), who served as a student cameraman on the project. Losing Ground is distributed by the D.C.-based Mypheduh Films, owned and operated by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima.

Picking up the cinematic baton left by Kathleen Collins, black female independent Julie Dash (1952-) is representative of a new generation of African American women cineastes. Dash, like Collins, is searching for a film aesthetic capable of addressing questions germane not only to race, class, and gender but also to work produced specifically by, for, and about black women. Experimental, eclectic, and postmodern like Collins's work, Dash's cinema also offers a critique of the misogynist notions at the root of films by her black male contemporaries. Collins and Dash are also comparable in their forthright dedication to the depiction of nonstereotypic images of black women, in opposition to those in the white-controlled mass media. Ironically, both also co-produce their films in association with black male independent filmmakers--Collins in conjunction with Ronald K. Gray (Transmagnifican Dambamuality) and Dash with the gifted cinematographer/film theorist A. J. Fielder (Seven Songs for Malcolm X).

To illustrate the work of director Julie Dash, Klotman presents the "master scene" draft of the script from her 34-minute, black-and-white short Illusions, shot while she was associated with an iconoclastic group of UCLA-based campus insurgents dubbed the "L.A. Rebellion" by critic Clyde Taylor. Described by Toni Cade Bambara as an "off-campus, student-generated study group," the coterie was comprised of black male independents such as Larry Clark, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Ben Caldwell, who facilitated the production of works by black women filmmakers such as Dash, Barbara McCullough, and Alile Sharon Larkin. While Klotman mistakenly cites Dash as a graduate of the UCLA Film School, Dash recalls the mitigating circumstances surrounding her rejection by the school in her recently published film memoir Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Women's Film (1992).

Set in the imaginary space of a historio-mythological Hollywood motion picture studio circa 1942, Illusions draws upon the narrative strategies of the classic Hollywood B-movie as a means of dramatizing the plight of a black female studio executive's attempts to pass for white, when confronted by an exclusionary cultural apparatus denying her subjectivity as an African American woman. The first installment on a projected triology of feature-length films chronicling the experience of African American women from the turn-of-the-century to the year 2000 A.D., the film stars actress Lonette McKee (Jungle Fever) in the lead role, and is currently distributed by the New York-based Third World Newsreel, Inc.

Like Julie Dash, Alile Sharon Larkin attempts to address the power of the cultural apparatus of white Hollywood cinema, though in a different light, in her allegorical work A Different Image, produced while she was associated with the UCLA school of black independents. Informed by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, pan-African cultural nationalism, and black oral vernacular forms, the film comments upon the inability of a black male subject to perceive the reality of a black female subject, "invisibilized" as a result of the hegemonic myths of black women as "sexual objects," which he has, unfortunately, embraced, Shot by cinematographer Charles Burnett, the film is distributed by J. Bernard Nicholas of Inter Image Video, Los Angeles, who also served as sound technician on the production crew of the project.

Klotman chooses to highlight the work of director Charles Burnett with a project completed while he too was associated with the UCLA school of black independents, Killer of Sheep, rather than To Sleep with Anger (1990). A pivotal figure in the history of Third World cinema aesthetics and postcolonial studies of the African diaspora, Burnett is also important as a chief architect of what many have come to define as the innovative, quasi-documentary, Italian neo-realist "style" of the L.A. group. A cameraman on projects such as Julie Dash's Illusions, Alile Sharon Larkin's A Different Image, and Haile Gerima's Bush Mama, Burnett also shot Billy Woodberry's classic feature Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), and has assisted the careers of countless aspiring independent filmmakers.

Possessing more of an affinity with Thrid World films from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East than those of the commercial Hollywood film industry, Killer of Sheep was influenced by British documentarian Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon. Shot in tough, gritty, black-and-white film stock in the South Central L.A./Watts area, the site of the May 1992 riots, the film draws on the story of a black working-class family as it investigates conflicting ideologies within a black community, in an allegorical, socio-realist context. Featuring actress Kaycee Moore, who portrayed Hagar Peazant in Dash's Daughters of the Dust, Killer of Sheep would influence films such as Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991) and John Singleton's Boyz n' the Hood (1991), which both explore the plight of the black family in postomdern society. Burnett's film is distributed by Mypheduh Films.

In reproducing the only "screenplay" in the book which contains no dialogue, Klotman underscores the work of New York-based independent Charles Lane with the script from his first feature, Sidewalk Stories. Shot in fifteen and one-half days in the blistering cold of one of New York City's most severe winters, the film stars Lane in the lead role as a disenfranchised street artist and his then-two-and-one-half-year-old daughter Nicole Alysia as an abandoned child whom the artist befriends. Drawing on the filmic conventions of pre-nickelodeon, turn-of-the-century silent shorts, Sidewalk Stories dramatizes an issue of national urgency in the post-Reagan/Bush era--the plight of the homeless. Only when the film reaches its apocalyptic conclusion are the heretofore muted voices of the homeless finally allowed to sound their anguish in a polyphonic litany of compassion reminiscent of a choreopoem. In its use of, perhaps, the only postmodern, cinematic "language" appropriate to describe the black" experience" in America--silence--Sidewalk Stories is avant-garde, oppositional, and subversive de facto. Sidewalk Stories is distributed by the L.A.-based Island/World Films.

By capturing a bygone era in black film history, Klotman's compilation underscores the urgency for research in the areas of black cinema aesthetics, postmodern visual culture, and black feminist filmmaking practices. Although complex theoretical issues such as the study of the screenplay as a work-of-art in and of itself go unaddressed, the book will, nevertheless, be viewed as a seminal work in years to come, as black independent filmmakers continue to advance to the forefront of the contemporary visual cultural arena on a global scale.
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Author:Williams, John (American clergyman)
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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