|BLACK INDEPENDENT CINEMA AND THE INFLUENCE OF NEO-REALISM
By Chris Norton. This article has been reprinted courtesy of IMAGES (www.imagesjournal.com).
Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man.
Independent Cinema and The Influence of Neo-realism: Futility, Struggle,
and Hope in the Face of Reality
In my article on blaxploitation cinema from Issue #4 of Images ("Cleopatra Jones 007: Blaxploitation, James Bond, and Reciprocal Co-Optation"), I outlined the emergence and decline of a group of films that found immense popularity in the early 1970s. These films mainly starred black actors in black action narratives which usually concealed subtextual themes of black nationalism and the Black Power rebellion. In fact, most of these films were produced by white-controlled Hollywood studios in an effort to capitalize on the popularity of such films as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971 by Melvin Van Peebles) and Shaft (1971 by Gordon Parks) and the box office clout of the black ticket buying public. Because of these industrial strategies, this group of films became known as blaxploitation, due both to the economic strategies of the film industry and the exploitation of the black public’s desire to see black faces and themes in non-subjugational positions on the screen.
Criticism of blaxploitation films from both black and white sources grew in intensity throughout the early and mid-1970s and aided in the films’ demise. However, some of the most fervent criticism of what blaxploitation came to embody was not found in the mainstream press, black publications or from the pulpit. In fact, it wasn’t even directly leveled at blaxploitation itself. It came through a group of black filmmakers circulating in and around the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1970s and early 1980s. These filmmakers came to be known as the Los Angeles School of Black Independent Film Makers, or simply, the L.A. School.1
Most notable of these filmmakers were Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima and Julie Dash. Drawing on their own experiences in the black community and varied political and social discourses of the time including black nationalism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, anti-war rhetoric and Marxist doctrine, these filmmakers sought an aesthetic and mode of representation and narration that spoke to the realities of black existence and the state of the black family under a hegemonic rule of white racism and subordination. They also drew upon a long and important history of black independent film making in America including the Lincoln Motion Picture Company of the 1910s, Oscar Micheaux in the 1920s and 1930s, Spencer Williams in the 1940s, and even white independent filmmakers of the 1960s including Michael Roemer and John Cassavetes who each made films dealing with American race relations in light of the Civil Rights movement from a decidedly non-hegemonic white position. James Snead writes of their project, "[T]heir films protest against the form and content of the tradition they were being taught. Their chief ambition was to rewrite the standard cinematic language of cuts, fades, frame composition, and camera movement in order to represent their own "nonstandard" vision of black people and culture. (117)
The sad reality of the body of work these filmmakers produced is that it was never widely distributed, scarcely reviewed in the mainstream press, and is now nearly impossible to find in the video store. While a fairly large body of academic writings on these films exists and the occasion retrospective springs up, such as the recently held showcase of Charles Burnett’s work at New York City’s Lincoln Center, these films are largely unknown to mainstream America.
One connection that is often made, but scarcely engaged, is the influence and similarities with Italian neo-realism of the post-war era and black independent cinema of the L.A. School. Monona Wali has called Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977), "[A] masterpiece of American neo-realism"(16). Italian neo-realism mainly evolved out of the broken conditions following the German occupation and the allied liberation following World War II. Realism was an underlying concern of all neo-realist films as they strived to portray the real world as it was at that time in Italy.2 Amos Vogel wrote of neo-realism:
Many commentators have marked the influence of neo-realism on black films coming out of the L.A. School starting in the 1970s, and indeed, Vogel’s statement could be applied to the L.A. school nearly word for word.
When approaching films like Killer of Sheep, white director Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964) or Billy Woodberry's powerful Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), one is quickly inundated with images and thematics that are directly reminiscent of Italian neo-realist films such as Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (1946) and Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema (1948). All three of these films display many important similarities with neo-realism that heighten their impact.
Killer of Sheep finds its main character, Stan, trying to cope with his limited existence. All he has are his family and his nightmarish job in a slaughterhouse. Despite this, he perseveres in the hope of a better life bringing to mind the many terrible existences of characters in the Italian neo-realist films and their struggle to survive. Nothing But a Man finds its main character, Duff, struggling against a racist social climate, repeatedly coming up against the walls white America constructs around him. This too brings to mind Italian neo-realism’s concern with the inability of the individual to change, escape or circumvent the social strictures that bind him into place. Finally, Bless Their Little Hearts ponders extensively on the role of the physical environment on those unfortunate enough to be kept within its boundaries. Many Italian neo-realist films, particularly Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles), explore how a harsh physical environment degrades the human spirit, particularly when the dominant exploit, or confine, those who must sustain themselves in it.
However, I think it important to explore the differences between these films and neo-realism as well. Mapping Nothing But a Man, Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts along a historical line from 1964 to 1984, one finds that the digestion of neo-realist thematics changed as socio-economic and cultural issues in the black community also changed. Three themes are ever present in all these films. The representation of hope, futility and struggle are key to understanding the ideology of these films as they are highly divergent from traditional mainstream forms of film making. As each black independent film engages these themes to differing effect, one can see how these filmmakers attempted to renegotiate the black image on screen and ground it firmly in issues of realism, something that the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s sought to remove the spectator from. Simply put, blaxploitation sought to be escapist while the black independent films discussed here sought to document and comment on the reality of black existence in America. What these three films have in common is a profound reflection of realist and neo-realist ideals. They are all concerned with the black family unit and its relation to dominant white society. Nothing But a Man sets up the most direct white/black conflict but both Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts can be seen as a continuation of that conflict as it manifested itself after the civil rights movement and the Black Power rebellion.
Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep holds many of the trademarks of realist and neo-realist film. Whereas the films of Jean Renoir and French poetic realism were so influential on the Italian neo-realist period, the neo-realist period obviously influenced Burnett deeply. Killer of Sheep deals with a common man, Stan, and his struggle to support his family and provide male leadership. The realist concern with the lower and marginal classes of society and the contemporaneity of realist texts are present in Burnett's film. This was the world at hand, the world both Burnett, and neo-realist directors like Rossellini and Visconti knew all too well. Contemporaneity is an element that is vital to the realist text. Paisan, in particular, dealt with issues that were pertinent to Italian life during the occupation of allied forces right before, and during, the time the film was made. Killer of Sheep also dealt with issues pertinent to the life of South-Central at the time it was made. Contemporaneity is an important aspect in realist films only because of the social consciousness that these pieces strive to alert and awaken. A need to see reality dealt with as it truly exists. Andre Bazin said of the post-war Italian cinema that it "was noted for its concern with actual day-to-day events...This perfect and natural adherence to actuality is explained and justified from within by a spiritual attachment to the period"(20). Burnett's piece exists as an extension of his own spiritual attachment to his period. Burnett grew up in South-Central and put on film that which he knew from his own life. Killer of Sheep deals exclusively with the day-to-day events of Stan's family. With humor, wit, and an eye for minutia, Burnett explores the issues of hope, longing, and futility, in short, the range of human emotions, through such events as a failed trip to the race track, the loss of a used car motor to make the American status symbol run again, and the drudgery of work in a slaughterhouse. This contemporaneity and actuality are not only a tie to Italian neo-realism, but also a link in allowing the film viewer into the reality of life for the inner city black family.
Stylistically and visually, Killer of Sheep shares much in common with Italian neo-realist productions. Both Italian neo-realist film and Burnett's piece use grainy black and white stock, a fact that has more to do with the means of production available than artistic choice. Expensive film stock and studio settings were not an option due to the lack of funds and the dominance of mainstream film over advanced means of production. However, the film stock used serves to add to the effect of realism with its obvious parallel to documentary film stock. The use of natural settings is also a hallmark of both. When comparing Paisan with Killer of Sheep, one is amazed at the similar mise-en-scene. Despite the fact of being separated by over thirty years, and the completely different locations, both film’s settings are strikingly similar. Both films portray a bombed out milieu, where rubble and abandoned buildings dominate the landscape; Italy's landscape scared by the years of war, South-Central's landscape scarred by years of urban decay, uprisings, middle-class flight, and businesses fleeing the inner-city.
Phyllis Rauch Klotman has commented on the neighborhood in Killer of Sheep saying, "its dirt and desiccation, becomes...a defining and limiting presence in the film"(97). In scenes that are almost identical, Paisan's children play on a heap of rubble as do the children of Killer of Sheep. This similarity resounds with more than a simple visual parallel. It is an indicative of the war that plagues the inner-city and its inhabitants. Whereas the allied forces tried to bring normalcy back to Italy, the inner city is left to rot by the rest of America, its inhabitants pushed far from the consciousness of suburban life. Burnett, much like Rossellini, brings to the forefront this plague of neglect.
Thematically, Killer of Sheep delves mostly into the arena of hope. Hopes can be expressed for every character in the film and every scene centers on a hope of something beyond the current reality. Hope rests in the American symbol of the automobile as Stan and his friend buy, with what little money they have, a used engine to get Stan's car running. This hope is quickly lost as the engine rolls out of the back of their pickup truck and is ruined. Hope rests on a failed trip to the horse track but Gene's car breaks down and the promise of a sure winner is lost. Hope rests in the family life of Stan and his wife but that too is lost as Stan's impotence, due to his nightmarish job in the slaughterhouse, prevents him from sexual activity. Hope rests in the children's play in the ruins of the ghetto which always leads to a child being hurt by thrown rocks, by being assaulted, or by accidents such as when a child skids off a skateboard as he races down a hill. All of these examples of hope end in futility. Hope ending in futility was also a common thematic in neo-realist film. All six of Paisan 's episodes end in futility. In the final episode, the courageous partisan and allied guerrilla fighters are defeated and executed leaving nothing but a feeling of futility for their efforts. In La Terra Trema, the family's attempt at buying their own boat, only ends in failure.
Despite the many examples of futility in Killer of Sheep, Burnett does not leave us with this feeling. In the end, Stan forcefully herds the sheep into the slaughterhouse showing more emotion than he has for the entire film. Evidently, he has decided to persevere and fight on despite society's place for him. Burnett says of Stan, "Not only does Stan continue to struggle, but he does so without falling into an abyss or becoming a criminal or doing other anti-social things"(Wali 20). Here, we have a departure from other neo-realist texts. Burnett has demonstrated hope and futility, aligning his work with other neo-realist texts, but he has placed the final emphasis on another hope, the hope that the continuing struggle for human dignity and a rightful place in American society is worth persevering. His film refuses to give in to the futility that plagues the inner city. The fact that Killer of Sheep ends with hope and that Stan chooses to continue his struggle are important features of black independent film. As will become evident after the discussion of Nothing But a Man, the "struggle" which produces hope is directly tied to black identity.
Nothing But a Man
However, while Nothing But a Man may differ in its aesthetics, its thematics place it firmly in the company of neo-realist film and the later black independent films. While Killer of Sheep chooses its sphere of interrogation in the inner-city, Nothing But a Man mainly chooses the rural south to lay bare the reality of life for blacks. Its images of the rural ghettos where Duff and his wife live is directly reminiscent of the cramped and simple dwellings of the fishing family in La Terra Trema. The scene of the railroad section gang hunting for rabbits and fishing for their dinner also brings to mind La Terra Trema's family living off their catches, unable to afford "civilized" or store bought food. In Nothing But a Man we even see children playing near a ruined house in a field of weeds which directly calls to mind the children playing in ruins in both Killer of Sheep and Paisan.
As with all neo-realist texts, futility plays a large part in the structure of the narrative. Duff equates his masculinity with being able to work and support his family. Without work, he feels he is nothing, not even a man. His frustration arises out of his inability to hold a job in a white controlled environment and still assert his right as an equal human being. Duff's unwillingness to defer to his white "superiors" at the mill and at the gas station causes him to lose both jobs and keeps him from finding another. Duff is not a lazy man who doesn't want to work like other characters in the film. His quest for employment is an exercise in futility as long as he will not defer to the white powers that maintain control over all avenues he explores. This leads Duff to leave his wife and move to the north. However, like Killer of Sheep, Nothing But a Man does not end in futility. As Stan refuses to give into the despair he feels, so too does Duff. In the end, he returns to his wife and picks up his illegitimate son, whom he has never cared for, and is determined to succeed in the very town that doesn't want him.
This distinction between Paisan and these two films is very interesting. Why do these films point to hope in the end while Paisan, and to a lesser extent La Terra Trema, point to futility? In an historical context, the Italians had hope in their future. Their country had been freed of a fascist government and the Germans. African Americans are still faced with the seemingly unassailable wall of racism in America but these two films still demonstrate hope. An explanation of this difference is found in the distinction that neo-realist film was primarily concerned with portraying reality as it was at that time and in the moment. In effect, neo-realism was a statement of current affairs and their effect on the Italian people. Nothing But a Man and Killer of Sheep are also concerned with portraying reality. However, these films are also engaged in a mission that was on-going. The "struggle" for a rightful place in society is a defining element of black identity in this country. Toni Cade Bambara has said that the L.A. School filmmakers "recognized cinema as a site of struggle" (119). This "struggle" is seen most clearly in L.A. School films such as Killer of Sheep and Bless Their Little Hearts but Nothing But a Man also displays this "struggle." Despite the films’ obvious aesthetic differences, as well as Nothing But a Man's white director, they both occupy a common political ground. To include this realization of a "struggle" demands an element of hope. To not include hope would mean the "struggle" would be over. The neo-realist films were mainly concerned with the present in an attempt to narrativize the present state of affairs and document them. That is not to say that neo-realist authors had no expectations, or hope, that things would get better, but the texts themselves are preoccupied with a state of affairs, a moment in history and a state of mind.
Nothing But a Man and Killer of Sheep choose to move beyond the state of affairs and their current (1964 and 1977) state of mind and lead the spectator on the continuation of a "struggle." This is a delicate distinction but one that may explain this difference. While all these films may in fact be "social documents" (Bazin 23), Nothing But a Man and Killer of Sheep are social documents in motion, social documents with momentum. This motion is narrativised as hope and a willingness to move beyond merely producing a document. Noel Carroll makes this very distinction speaking about "History" and "chronicling." He says, "History - as opposed to chronicling - is about making connections between [past] events and in many cases...later events" (36). Neo-realist films chronicle the past. These black independent films are "history." They make "connections" to an ongoing struggle through past events of futility and a future of hope. Ntongela Masilela recognized this very aspect in Burnett's work saying, "[T]he central theme of Burnett's work... [is] the impact of the discord of the past (of history) on the present" (113). This implies a definite ideological statement that was largely absent from neo-realism. That statement involves the renegotiation of the representation of the black figure on the screen. This new figure has agency and refuses to give into white subjugation despite his repeated failures in the face of racism. While blaxploitation figures also shared this agency they did so in a fantasy realm with no realistic blueprint for blacks to seize. The black independent films discussed here provide that blueprint. While films such as Killer of Sheep and Nothing but a Man may seem superficially not to be overly invested in socio-political rhetoric (as blaxploitation films wear on their silk-ruffled sleeves right next to their coke spoons) they are in fact striving to provide hope through realistic images for the black community
Bless Their Little
Bless Their Little Hearts has much is common with neo-realism as well. Near the end of the film, Charlie and his friends concoct a scheme to catch fish and sell them on the highway to passing motorists. This scheme ends in futility as the fish do not sell and Charlie walks off into an empty field to face his continued futile existence. Again, the fish selling scheme is directly reminiscent of La Terra Trema's boat scheme that only leads to the family's return to working for other people. The film also has many non-professional actors, most notably the three Banks children who were actually Burnett's three children. The film has many long takes (a film technique long associated with realism), one being the fight between Charlie and his wife. This scene is mostly improvised and carries on, uncut, for over five minutes. For an improvised scene, the dialogue does not suffer from any hint of inexperience. Ed Guerrero writes of this scene, "The action between Charlie and Andais is improvised, allowing the actor and actress to draw upon their own cultural repository of gestures, experiences, and memories to animate the scene" (320). It is this cultural repository of the non-professional actor, in a sense a real person, that makes the realist text real. It isn't acting with the non-professional actor that makes it real, it is their cultural identity allowed to permeate the scene. Like both Killer of Sheep and Nothing But a Man, Bless Their Little Hearts cites the bombed out milieu of Paisan's Italy as well. As Charlie returns from one of his menial jobs, ruined and abandoned factories pass by in the background. By 1984, South-Central hasn't changed, perhaps only gotten worse.
Unlike Killer of Sheep and Nothing But a Man, Bless Their Little Hearts ends with futility. As Charlie walks off into the field, we are left with nothing but a continued feeling of hopelessness. Why does the film differ in this way from other black independent films? What has happened to the "struggle" and the unwillingness to give into futility? Bless Their Little Hearts comes at an important historical juncture in black existence. Ed Guerrero writes, "Bless Their Little Hearts is set in an historical moment occurring only an instant before the genocidal explosion of drugs and gang violence in black communities across the nation" (321-2). No doubt the underlying causes of drugs and gangs were already becoming evident even before the film was made. It is this historical moment that has finally pushed hope completely out of the picture. Drugs and gangs are in part a direct result of oppression and poverty that pervade the inner city and they are two issues not dominant in 1964 and 1977. While drugs and gangs are not issues that occur in Bless Their Little Hearts, it is the underlying causes of drugs and gangs, already firmly entrenched in the black community by 1984, that have pushed futility to dominate. Drugs and violence have been folded into the black community where the only outlet available is on other blacks (a fact that gang violence vividly demonstrates). The "struggle" has met the most insidious of obstacles, and futility has become dominant. Considering Burnett's optimism as displayed in the end of Killer of Sheep, he and Woodberry have changed their social outlook and saw obstacles that mere hope could not overcome. This in fact is a telling marker considering the return to violence and riots that would soon envelop Los Angeles. That is in part why Bless Their Little Hearts departs from previous black independent film. Its historical moment is quite different from 1977 and 1964. A hope grounded in the simplicity of perseverance is no longer a vital socio-personal strategy. A return to the rhetoric of the Black Power movement was. America would soon be awakened to this through more rioting and the return of violent black images on the screen through such films as New Jack City and Boys N the Hood.
From 1964 to 1984, these three films chart the struggles of black Americans from the inside, a place no Hollywood film dare go. As white America smugly believes they have done all they can do for black Americans, the progression of the "struggle" as seen in these three films shows that white hegemony is as pervasive as always. Neo-realism quickly became removed from its social ties in Italy as post-war conditions returned to normal. Black independent neo-realism has lost none of its social ties and that is why these films are still making "history." They have not become a simple chronicle of the past. They are still making connections with the present and that is why these films need to be shown and viewed. While these three films vary in the depiction of hope, futility and struggle, they all share one underlying theme which has incredible social urgency. That theme is "we cannot let futility win." It is this social urgency that must be continually addressed if futility is to be permanently displaced by hope.