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Emma Mae aka Black Sisters Revenge (1974) and The L.A. Rebellion

February 24, 2014

emmamaeposterAs Blaxploitation took mainstream Hollywood by storm, a different genre of films was flourishing from young black film students at UCLA. The L.A. Rebellion as it is currently refered to, was a movement in which black filmmakers wanted to show alternative stories and ideas that moved away from standard, conventional storytelling subjects and methods. Ike Jones became UCLA’s first black graduate of the film department in 1953. By the 1960s more black cinephiliacs flooded the school sharing a common fondness of films from Latin America and African cinema as well as Italian Neorealism influence. Jones went to become the first black producer of a major Hollywood film on the Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle, A Man Called Adam. The film students of UCLA, well into the 1980s, went on to create a number of influential, aesthetically unique films that further changed black cinema.

Jamma Fanaka’s Emma Mae is the first independent film released to be associated with the movement. Emma Mae, often referred to as Black Sister’s Revenge, feels a bit like the poor man’s Foxy Brown, or Coffy for that matter. But, what Emma Mae lacks in style and glamour it makes up for in realism and sincerity. Unlike Foxy, Emma’s fight isn’t trying to get heroin off the streets in an elaborate undercover scheme. Instead, Emma’s fight is the expectations and callousness of others. Emma is a good old country girl from Mississippi brought to stay with her aunt and cousins in Compton. Emma is initially scoffed at by her cousins and their friends due to her slacking, unkempt appearance, yet despite it all she keeps a smile on her face soaking up the pros and cons of city life. She quickly moves up in status among her new peers when she shows everyone she’s capable of taking care of herself after socking a few people who get out of place. Before long she’s dating one of the local crooks and is an accomplice in a crime of a police beating landing her into a whirlwind of trouble she must fix with her own hands.

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A notable figure in the L.A. Rebellion, Fanaka’s first film, Emma Mae, exemplifies what the movement stood for. Emma Mae feels like a looking glass that peers into urban life of the 70s. The sometimes obscene fashion choices is exhibited in all its glory through bell-bottomed jeans, platform shoes and bare waists of both men and women. Though Fanaka’s script missteps with the occasional confusing and poorly worded moments, for the most part it allows conversation to flow naturally. Characters seem as though they’re improving as the insults and laughter bounce off each other at a natural pace. Growing up, my cousins and I loved calling each other names like “doodoo bird” and “boogerbear.” It was absolutely heartwarming to have the words heard of my childhood ring through in Emma Mae, and it never hurts to hear a couple of dozen “jives” and “dig its” throughout.

Jerri Hayes gives a commendable performance as Emma in her first and only film. Her performance isn’t the stuff of legends, but Hayes captures and effectively transmits the sweet naivety of Emma. Hayes’ smile lights up the screen and every kind word and gesture out of her mouth feels sincere. Likewise, Hayes perfectly embodies Emma’s aggressive wild side when needed showing an agility and knowledge of protecting herself that seems to exist beyond the screen. Emma’s feisty behavior is matched by Hayes ability to show true understanding of the situations Emma finds herself in and her at times impulsive behavior. Through Hayes’ performance and Fanaka’s script, everything about Emma comes full circle into one cohesive character study: her smarts, ignorance, kindness, wonder, and rage.

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The rest of the cast has their moments to shine with most of them lending to all around decent performances. Fanaka’s script is a whirlwind ride that goes places I couldn’t even imagine for a film of it’s stature. It gives an open, loud voice to black women and transforms Emma from a country bumpkin into a heroine. Fanaka’s exhalting of Emma is tantalizing due to its sheer individuality. Emma is not your average lead. She’s a dark-skinned black girl with a strong southern accent. She doesn’t stress about her appearance which leads to insults and unwanted negative attention from others around her, and she’s reminded of her position in society as a black woman when a car washing business is stopped because it becomes too controversially successful. However, Emma keeps her head high never once letting others stop her from persevering. Instead Emma makes changes to the situations that leave her unhappy even if that does mean getting her hands dirty and kicking a little ass. Emma faces every adversity head on and though she ends the film in a mess of tears, she leaves proud of her accomplishments resulting in my new-found hero in cinema.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jerri Hayes. permalink
    March 21, 2017 6:19 PM

    I enjoyed working with Jamaa. Forever missing him.

    • March 21, 2017 8:44 PM

      Whooooaaa– like THE Jerri Hayes?? I’m honored that you stopped by! How was working with Jamaa? What did distribution for the film look like? I have so many questions

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