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The word "rebellion" might bring to mind images of sudden, violent uprisings, but the movement chronicled in L.A. Rebellion: Creating A New Black Cinema, a series of films and related events launching at TIFF Bell Lightbox in celebration of Black History Month, emerged gradually, spawning long careers and breaking a path for subsequent generations to follow and widen.
The movement can be traced back to UCLA in the 1960s, when African-American students began to envision a place for themselves within film culture. They sought an alternative not only to the spectrum of skin tones that dominated Hollywood, but also to its prevailing depiction of history and class. L.A. Rebellion showcases seven feature films and five programs of shorts dating from 1975 to 2006.
I hope that by now the name Charles Burnett means something to anyone interested in movies, because he's one the great underappreciated filmmakers. Burnett's poetic, funny and harrowing Killer Of Sheep (Saturday, February 2, 1 pm, introduced by TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey), though made in 1977, received its belated theatrical release in 2007 and was rightly recognized as a masterpiece.
It's a story of everyday struggle in Watts, fusing John Cassavetes, Italian neo-realism and silent comedy with a fresh, vigorously independent voice, one grounded in working-class black experience.
But My Brother's Wedding (Tuesday, February 5, 9:15 pm), Burnett's 1983 follow-up, is in its way just as great. In this moral tale of class resentment, conflicting loyalties and masculine identity, the unambitious adult son of dry cleaners continually embarrasses his family by insulting his brother's upper-class fiancée when he's not running off to get into trouble with a friend newly released from prison.
What's remarkable about My Brother's Wedding is how Burnett balances an intimate character study with the portrait of an entire community: the teenage girl who brags about her period, the old guy who uses a new alias every time he drops off clothes, the desperate men who shuffle in begging for work. The parade of supporting characters doesn't distract from the central narrative, but instead creates a broader social context for it.
Just as lyrical and imaginative, if more didactic, is Julie Dash's Daughters Of The Dust (Thursday, January 31, 8:45 pm), introduced by Dash (who also, in a separate event, takes part in an onstage conversation). Released in 1991, Daughters was the first feature made by an African-American woman to get a theatrical distribution, but see the film for Dash's talent for rapturous montage and insistence on chronicling forgotten histories.
Set in 1902, it depicts three generations of African-American women as they prepare to leave their Sea Island home and a life governed by magic and the eternal presence of ancestors for a life of Christianity, science and modernity on South Carolina's mainland. There's an air of myth and theatricality to the speeches, performance style and staging: nearly all the action transpires on the beach, as though the moment of departure is suspended.
Daughters is about people trying to move forward without forgetting where they came from - a fitting way to encapsulate the spirit of L.A. Rebellion, which changed American movies by chronicling experiences that up till then had been all but ignored.