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Interview: Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry Discuss the L.A. Rebellion

Beginning in the 1960s courtesy of a group of Black film students at UCLA, the L.A. Rebellion was an independent film movement that changed the way cinema was seen in the United States. While these films were made with non-professional actors on modest budgets, they have endured as landmark achievements that portrayed Black life in America in a way that was dramatically opposed to the Hollywood and blaxploitation films of the era. 

Featuring directors like Charles BurnettBilly WoodberryJulie Dash, and Larry Clark, among others, these filmmakers supported one another, often working multiple jobs on each other’s films during their time together. The movement endured through the early 1990s, as filmmakers like Burnett and Dash moved on to bigger budget productions with Hollywood actors like To Sleep with Anger (Burnett)and Daughters of the Dust (Dash). 

Those two films feature as part of TCM Classic Film Festival’s tribute to the L.A. Rebellion, available to stream during their virtual festival via TCM’s virtual network and the TCM Hub on HBO Max from May 6th to May 9th. Alongside them is Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, a picture that, like many others from the movement, wasn’t accessible to most audiences until long after it was made due to the neglect of these important works of American cinema. 

Thankfully, the achievements of these phenomenal filmmakers have started to get more of the recognition they deserve, with all three films featured in TCM’s festival (as well as another of Burnett’s films, Killer of Sheep) having been inducted into the National Film Registry. Inclusion in that registry is based on a film being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The films of the L.A. Rebellion more than meet all three of those criteria. 

With the TCM Classic Film Festival kicking off, it was my genuine honor to be able to sit down with Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry to discuss how their passion for filmmaking led them to UCLA and to collaborating with their fellow artists to create these remarkable, enduring works of art. From discussing their desire to step away from the Hollywood films of the era to their introduction to the kinds of third world cinema that would inspire them to tell their own stories on film, getting the chance to speak with these two legendary figures of cinema was an experience I’ll never forget. 

Read on for my interview with filmmakers Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry: 

Mitchell Beaupre: When the L.A. Rebellion began in the 1960s at UCLA, the two of you and the other Black filmmakers you worked with were making films unlike anything else being seen in America at the time. When did you first discover that filmmaking was a passion for you? 

Charles Burnett: I always had a visual passion in a sense. I always liked framing and composition, and originally I wanted to be a photojournalist, but I found that I just didn’t have the sensibilities for that kind of thing. In city college I was a major in electronics, and I got bored with that. I was interested in photography, so I always wanted to do something with cameras, particularly with still pictures. The only other place for that was USC or UCLA, so I tried to get into USC but it was too expensive. I called up UCLA, and they said to come on over, and that was the start of it for me. 

What made me think of making films as a means of social change was when I was in junior high school. It was such a bad school, I mean all of the schools that I went to were very bad, and the teachers were so awful. I distinctly remember one of the teachers in that junior high said to the students “you’re not going to be anything, and you’re not going to be anything” and then they looked at me and said “you’re not going to be anything”, and it was really offensive. I remember walking home from school, and I was very hurt by that, and I thought to myself that I was going to comment on that in one way or another. I knew that I needed to say something about that, and how I saw that it destroyed kids my age. 

I had sort of forgotten about that though, but then when I was in high school I was reminded of it because one of the teachers had said something similar. Then it happened again when I was in college. It just reinforced in me that I needed to make that a priority, so when I got to UCLA that was one of my motivations for wanting to make films. Then a group of particular Black students came in, and we all had this goal to make films that reflect who we are as people. 

Basil Wright was someone who really brought that notion back into my head. I had him as a teacher, and he was making these movies about people in other countries being exploited by companies and things like that. I found that I couldn’t make those kinds of films because they’re about things that well-to-do students were familiar with, and that wasn’t my reality. However, seeing how he was able to make films on subjects that he wanted to comment on allowed me to take his advice and make films about what I knew, and the people I knew about. That’s how I really got involved, especially when people like Billy and Julie Dash came aboard and made it very clear that there was a lot of support there. 

Billy Woodberry: I sort of came to it in a kind of indirect way. I was in a summer course at the California State University of Los Angeles, between undergraduate school and graduate school, and I took a course in Latin American studies. There was a historian at UCLA who wrote a book about Latin America through film, and he was excited about the movies that were coming from new Latin American cinema. He and a lot of his contemporaries in academia, or at least the more imaginative ones, were thinking that it was really interesting what was happening in Brazil and Mexico and Cuba, and it was a way to interest people and maybe show them in this kind of dynamic way what’s happening in those societies. 

So, I took a course about Cuba, and I saw a lot of documentary movies about things like literacy campaigns, and it was developing in me a kind of social consciousness by exposure and experience, but also by reading and thinking about these things. I was impressed that film could in fact have another purpose beyond being merely a distraction. That gave me a rationale and a justification to suppose that I could be doing something with film. It was a big challenge, but it was okay because learning new things was something that interested me greatly. 

I came around to UCLA just to take a look with a friend, and I saw Charles and other people, and it looked like they were doing some really interesting things. The more I learned about what people like Charles and Larry Clark were doing, with their Third World Film Club and everything, the more I had the feeling that this was a place for me, especially as I started seeing more Black students coming in that were all there to really learn how to do it. It was a challenge, but because there were enough people around that were interested in the same things, with the same kind of ideals and same goals, we all kind of united. 

We all had this clear idea that whatever films we made should go beyond satisfying the campus of the film school and the people around us. They needed to have a greater purpose. We felt that the possibility of us being there had been created by the efforts of people in the larger community, even if they weren’t there with us. Not all of us agreed on everything all of the time, but there’s a saying that “the way you learn is by doing with others”, and we all were there as different people with this same desire and the same goals trying to figure it all out. 

It was such a dynamic place, with a lot of thoughts and ideas coming in from outside – things that were happening in society, in the culture, in music, in young people wanting to make art and wanting to express themselves. We wanted to make art that related to the political struggles of the time, we wanted to get involved in opposing the war, in opposing certain forms of political repression, and aggression against people in the community. I think that was the environment and the context that allowed me to become more convinced that this was something that I wanted to do, especially as I was able to do it with the example and help of others. 

MB: Directors working today cite the L.A. Rebellion often as a major inspiration for their work. I was speaking to Shatara Michelle Ford earlier this year, and she mentioned how seeing your movies at a young age allowed them to realize that she even could make movies as a Black person in America. How do you feel about that kind of inspiration and validation that your work has been able to give to younger generations? 

BW: If they say that we give them that then it makes me very happy. You hope that if they are inspired by the example then it means we were doing something right. I think of this in relation to a film I remember watching by a young German cinema guy, he’s well known now, named Wim Wenders, where I saw it and was so amazed because I felt that I could see this guy’s handprints all over this film. I could tell that it was made by a person, not made by a machine. Maybe that’s something that helps people who can see that in our work. They can see the prints and the smudges, and those things, and it encourages them. If it does that then it’s a good thing. You can’t hope for much more than that. 

MB: I read this quote from Nate Hardman, an actor who appeared in Bless Their Little Hearts, where he described that film as being “a story about a Black family that was positive and contained no cussing, killing, and robbery”. Could you talk about that idea of wanting to create films depicting Black American life at the time that were more naturalistic, as opposed to the portrayal of Black folks from Hollywood films or even in blaxploitation films of the era?

CB: I didn’t really think of myself as being a rebellious person, or being in a rebellion in any way, even though that was what was taking place. It wasn’t until years later when people like Clyde Taylor branded us in that way when I sort of accepted that was what we were doing. I remember one of the things I was worried about were those perpetuations of stereotypes and these narratives that were written by these other folks, starting all the way back to Birth of a Nation. That film was incredibly offensive, and something that really destroyed Reconstruction. I knew we were fighting against that, and the films that I was trying to make were trying to restore what was real. 

I wanted to make films about the people that were in my neighborhood, that I knew and admired, whose stories weren’t getting exposed. That was the goal, that was the emphasis, but I didn’t know the impact of the films until much later. It wasn’t until we started going over to Europe and places with the films, and having them play at festivals, where I realized that impact, and I was so surprised by it. I had thought that I was making films that were just going to be shown in the community, but certainly not anything that I could make a living on. I thought it was just a hobby, and something where I was going to be working my regular job to support my habit of making films. 

It wasn’t until people started scheduling our films to play in different communities throughout the country that I got a sense of who I was making the films for. All along though, we knew what kind of films we wanted to be making. We would argue day and night about the films, and then when a person like Elyseo Taylor came and introduced third world cinema to us, it was just one of the most positive things that could have happened. That gave us such a purpose, and pointed us in the direction of thinking that we wanted to make films like that. 

Another one of the important things was being able to work with people like Billy and Julie Dash and Sharon Larkin, all people trying to arrive at the same problem, the same issues, and figure out how we try to fix it. We talked for long hours so many nights, so we just saw all of this support with each other, which was really meaningful especially as there were only a few people of color at UCLA at the time. That small group really supported each other, and we knew that Hollywood’s films weren’t the kinds of things that we wanted to be involved in. 

That world was especially closed at the time as well. Things like Sundance and all of that didn’t exist yet, so we were making these films on our own, and it wasn’t until the Europeans got involved and began supporting Black independent films that we were able to start having that bigger reach. That put us on the map, so to speak, because magazines and journalists in the States weren’t saying anything about what we were making at the time. There were other Black filmmakers that existed, or were trying to work towards making films, but they never had the opportunity and the support that we did. We came along at the right time, I think, and we owe that to each other because we supported one another. 

MB: That idea of timing is an interesting one, because a lot of these films like Bless Their Little Hearts or Killer of Sheep or My Brother’s Wedding weren’t properly screened back then the way other films were. You’re both doing press for these films 40 years after you made them, and so many people are still only just discovering your work thanks to things like the Criterion Channel spotlighting them or the TCM Classic Film Festival now. How do you feel about that longevity of your work, that slower process of people discovering these films over time and having them endure the way that they have?

BW: It happened as it happened. Charles said it perfectly there, that we were right on time. It makes me think about this film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet called Too Early, Too Late that tells this story about revolution in France and in Egypt and places – it’s quite an interesting film. We were where we were. There’s nothing to do about that, nothing to moan about, nothing to lament. It’s what happened. It took the time that it took. I can say, in the modest life of Bless Their Little Hearts that film has been seen by quite a lot of people. It’s been seen in garages in South Central Los Angeles, it’s been seen in churches, in San Francisco with a house full of women and children, in Berlin, in Cannes.

A friend said to me years ago, “You make films that shouldn’t exist by the logic of the system”, so the fact that it survives and people find something of interest in it is a blessing. Maybe because of the writing, the themes, the composition of what it’s based on, maybe it’s able to outlast a lot of fashionable things that were around at the time. I think we were aware that the experience had a kind of human depth, a human meaning for people even outside of our community. We made films about the things that people find resonant, and moving, and interesting. They can make comparisons between the work and their own life. 

These films are about a kind of working life, a search for work that unfortunately has become all too prevalent these days to the point where the levels of unemployment are normalized. All of those things were recording something that was happening at the time that we were noticing. I think because it’s a film that is about a couple, about a family and children, it has this appeal that people have found sustaining, which has given it this kind of life because it’s always got something that is available to the audience. I think a lot of people find the struggle and challenge in these films relatable. Unfortunately, a lot of these problems still exist in the world today. 

There are beautiful things in there as well, though. I think something people appreciate is that these films are older than us. They carry a culture that is older than us and they carry that experience that’s not the subject of the film necessary, but it carries something of that. Those things continue to be of interest for people, they survive no matter the time. I’m glad to have been a part of it, and to have at least had the wisdom not to mess it up, to try and tinker with it to make it something different at the time that maybe wouldn’t have been able to move and connect with people still the way that it does. 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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