The shorts program this weekend offered a chance to see early work by major names in the L.A. Rebellion and works by some lesser known filmmakers.
What really stands out with this program was the clever programming.
The three shorts discussed here all touch on the theme of identity; not just the obvious theme of how our racial identity is shaped by ourselves and our society, but also how we wear that identity like a mask. A mask that sometimes hides who we really are, or a mask that we fashion to tell the truth.
Julie Dash’s UCLA thesis project Illusions (1982, 36 minutes) began the evening. Lonette McKee stars (she had already starred in Sparkle at this point but was two years away from her turn in The Cotton Club) as a Hollywood movie executive passing for white circa 1942. She has a fateful meeting with a Black singer whose voice is being recorded to dub a white movie star that causes her to question her place in the system. The short is a student film and it bears many of the usual shortcomings. Aside from technical limitations, the film’s dialogue veers to the declamatory and obvious. But seeing Dash explore the inner workings of the dream factory the L.A. Rebellion stands in opposition to makes this a unique and important work in the L.A. Rebellion canon. McKee’s Mignon Dupree reminded me of Don Draper (the hero of Mad Men). Like Don, she is a fiercely competent professional guarding a Big Secret. The mask she’s donned to achieve her success slips and in doing so she gives voice to the mission statement of the movement more directly than any other character in the L.A. Rebellion films.
Gay Abel-Bey’s Fragrance (1985, 38 minutes) followed. Now the theme of identity as mask is applied to the story of a G.I. coming home before shipping out to Vietnam. He is caught between his patriotic veteran father and his militant brother who urges him not to fight. Abel-Bey’s short plays like Norman Lear melodrama, minus the steady stream of jokes. Though the characters lack complexity the short raises interesting questions. The protagonist wrestles with keeping his own identity mask (made literal through his army uniform) on while those around him pressure him based on the mask they have chosen for themselves (patriot, or dissident).
Lastly As Above, So Below (1973, 52 minutes – image above) by Larry Clark (not the creepy ephebophile Larry Clark responsible for Kids) takes this theme to even new heights. As with the other shorts, this is also a film about war. Nathaniel Taylor (Rollo from Sanford And Son) plays Jita-Hadi, an ex-Marine back in Los Angeles after reluctantly participating in American imperialist folly in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. The film follows Jita-Hadi through a funhouse where it quickly becomes clear that the external personae of characters does not always match their true selves. This is ultimately a film about revolution, recalling both Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door and the work of Rebellion filmmaker Haile Gerima. Clark includes two intriguing elements. The soundtrack includes a voiceover from a 1968 HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) report on Black subversives (which details how the Black community must be pacified and contained) and Clark also cuts to long scenes in a Black church brimming with the Holy Spirit to the point of sweaty, grotesque caricature. This isn’t coonery for entertainment’s sake. Clark is making one of the most pointed statements in the L.A. Rebellion which throughout has demonstrated at minimum an unease with Christianity as a balm for the souls of Black folk. Clark goes further. Juxtaposing the HUAC report with the church scenes is both subtle and a clear condemnation. Pacification can take many forms. In the end, Clark suggests that not all of us wear masks that hide who we are. Jita-Hadi’s final scenes do not suggest that he is wearing a mask to hide his true self. On the contrary, it is we the viewer who over the course of the film’s running time learn to see the truth of his mask.