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Rebelling Against the Status Quo With Art and Anger

February 24, 2016

For part 1 of this ongoing series, begin here.

Throughout the 1960s, Los Angeles, Hollywood underwent drastic transformation from its previous existence. A “Second Great Migration” took place in the 1940s resulting in an influx of African-Americans from the South in the North, West, and Midwest, changing the culture of L.A. and its outskirts. Black women continued to grace the screens of Hollywood films through the 1960s but producing their own content through a Hollywood studio still remained a rarity. The women who starred in major motion pictures during this time deserve their fair recognition: Ruby Dee, Beah Carroll, Diahann Carroll, Diana Sands, and Abbey Lincoln. Neither of these women ever starred as a film’s main character alongside their male counterparts, especially with white actors, but it should be noted that these women delivered spectacular performances that remain memorable in the minds of filmmakers and audience members.

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Black men saw increasing perceptibility but it was mostly Sidney Poitier whose fame skyrocketed allowing more Hollywood films centered on the young, Bahamian actor as his lead roles often bolstered his intelligent, handsome, and gentle qualities. The times were changing and America felt it. The Civil Rights movements swelled in the South and by 1969 Hollywood had finally produced its first film by an African-American, Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree. Still, Black women had to seek other avenues for control over their voices, images, and the stories they wanted to tell. It would take a couple of new doors opening a few miles away from Hollywood at UCLA before Black women could enter and create, along with promising opportunities in television and journalism.

L.A. anchored an impressive burst of creative activity that bobbed to the surface thanks to the rising number of attendees at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1966, the Dickers Art Center filled its department with creative expressions from members all over the African Diaspora. These artists were changing and expanding the landscape of art building on the past with their eyes on the future. From 1966 through the 1980s, a slew of artists and filmmakers entered the UCLA Fine Arts and Film departments and inadvertently mentored and aided one another in generating unique modes of expression unlike anything else of its time (Jones). The movement of filmmaking from these artists became coined as “The L.A. Rebellion” which swept through the 60s hitting a major peak in the 1970s and 80s.

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This rebellion displayed itself through art, but more importantly through street rioting as the racial divide in L.A. sparked into a fiery incineration. The Great Migration of the early 20th century had sent a majority of African-Americans from the South into the North and Midwest largely bypassing the West coast. However, in the 1940s WWII spawned increasing defense production and labor in various departments in L.A. beckoning the call to many African-Americans to come for work. This resulted in the “Second Great Migration” in which L.A.’s black population rose impressively from 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 by 1970. Black bodies throughout L.A. had now become a largely visible population, and right on cue with as the country focused on its racial divide and inequality.

Housing became increasingly scarce with the arrival of more residents and patterns of housing discrimination were fervent. Suburban white areas had pushed large numbers of African Americans and Latinos to South and East L.A. Land developers began constructing housing in the Compton and Watts neighborhoods resulting in Black suburbs that provided comfort for working families. By the 1950s, the boiling crime and racial divide in the city hit its tipping point. The Rumford Fair Housing Act passed in 1963, intending to end discrimination against African-Americans for housing, but Californians voted for Proposition 14 a year later which nullified the passage of the act and further expressing a desire to segregate California.

With these racial issues bubbling–including rage aimed at Martin Luther King’s assassination– Watts, L.A. imploded on itself sending a blast of radiation out to those across the city and country. A 1965 traffic stop of an allegedly drunk African-American driver resulted in a clash with police and citizens of Watts, L.A. The clash exploded into a six-day riot in which angered citizens expressed their rage of oppression into the windows of businesses and torched cars on the road. The riot made L.A. look a like a war zone culminating in $40 million in damage and 34 deaths. Hollywood, however, continued making films staring white faces as if nothing was happening.

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Regarding the abscene of the Watts riots in mainstream media, even today, L.A. Times journalist Steven Zeitchik pointed out, “History hardly needs Hollywood for validation, and a movie can’t alter the trajectory of past events. Still, a film can enshrine struggle in our collective memory and even alter our perceptions. The absence of Watts movie footage suggests that pop culture has yet to fully process the complexities of our racial divisions — and, in turn, could inhibit the process from taking hold in the future.”

Meanwhile, African-Americans in selected areas of the country increasingly began to see more liberal and accurate representations of themselves and relatable issues through public broadcast news. New York’s own National Education Television (NET) acted a liaison that bridged stories affecting the African-American community to the masses. Among the network’s journalists was Madeline Anderson, whose own filmmaking turned a keen, powerful eye on to the social issues pertaining to African-Americans. Anderson’s co-worker and fellow documentarian St. Clare Bourne is heralded for doing the same. NET intended to rival the handful of networks that existed at the time (CBS, NBC, Dumont) and swiftly became a network that professed to make stories for black people by black people. But– as Anderson pointed out after a strike initiated by the network’s employees– NET’s first executive produce were white. “Why should someone always be interpreting our experience and not correctly?” Anderson pondered. By 1969, more creative control was delivered to the staff of NET as African-American William Greaves took over as executive producer, helping change the direction and creative output of the network.

hqdefaultThrough NET, Madeline Anderson became one of the premiere Black female documentarians in America centering her work on social injustices and focusing on the lives within the Black community. In 1958, Anderson felt the need to capture the racial struggles taking place around her. While employed with Andover Productions, she began work on her first short subject documentary Integration Report: Part One. It is historically significant for its role in capturing protests in New York, Alabama, and Washington D.C. with protesters fighting for and against integration in the schools. The film features an inspiring, little-known speech from Dr. Martin Luther King as well as the fiery expression of pride and gratitude from Baynard Rustin to his fellow activists. Integration Report: Part One collects images captured by various photographers including soon to be famous directors D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles. Anderson gained funding for her project by saving money from paychecks and receiving donations. Maya Angelou even offered to record “We Shall Overcome” with no charge for Anderson which begins and ends the film.

In 1967, racial riots broke out in Newark, New Jersey after a black cab driver was arrested and allegedly abused by white officers. The production team of NET scrambled to cover the story with the network commissioning a documentary to be made about the upheaval. As time went on and NET became more centered in their coverage of Black issues, the decision was made to create “Black Journal, a once a month, hour-long “magazine show” that mixed video tape and film by various filmmakers and journalists working at the network. Anderson recalls “Black Journal” being a show that was inventive unlike anything before or since owing the show’s creativity and innovative depiction of images a result of their lack of funds and budgeting issues.

Anderson had to hustle screenings of Integration Report: Part One to churches and classes before gaining outside distribution. Anderson went on to work as an assistant director with Shirley Clarke on The Cool World in 1963. In 1967, she made a short, highly praised documentary about Malcolm X featured on “Black Journal” before she produced her most critically acclaimed and successful film I Am Somebody in 1970. Anderson’s success continued when she turned to producing and directing in children’s television, most notably “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company”. Anderson’s work is considered to uphold many characteristics of Third Cinema, a movement in filmmaking that pushes for truth and encourages mass activism.

Black women in Hollywood had success, but much of their greatest achievements throughout the 1960s were in the realms of Broadway and Television. Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman to win a Tony award for her on stage performance in No Strings in 1962. Carroll also held the honor of leading the sitcom “Julia” in 1968. Julia, a widowed mom who worked as nurse in a doctor’s office and held romantic interests in well to do African-American men, marked the first time a series portrayed a Black woman in a non-stereotypical role. Black women continued to struggle for visibility and proper representation throughout the 1960s, but managed to jump over major hurdles to accomplish the deed of expressing and telling stories that pertained to them greatly juxtaposing the issues that Hollywood’s broad lenses glanced over. By the 1970s, these renegade artist’s battle did not perish in vain. These women helped usher in a new visibility of creative brilliance that finally received the recognition and praise it deserved in the latter half of the century.

Additional Citation:

Jones, Kellie. Now Dig This!: Art & Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum. 2011

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 27, 2016 12:56 PM

    Reblogged this on Memoir Notes.

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