Exploring Haile Gerima’s ‘Child of Resistance’ and the Black Radical Tradition

“My people and me, Black men and women, prisoners of a long fight. I look at history: constant war. Since the day I was snatched, abducted from my mother’s land, I’ve been prisoner of war. Shit! Who want to understand me?”

-       Unnamed Prisoner, Child of Resistance.

“How do we explain a white political cinema genuinely anxious about government corruption, the integrity of the press, a woman’s right to choose, the plight of turtles and whales, or the status of the public square, and a black political cinema calling for the end of the world.”

–  F. B. Wilderson III, Red, White and Black.

 

The post-civil rights era of the 1970’s, in the midst of the aftermath of the Los Angeles Watts riots saw the collective imaginations of a group of black filmmakers set out to transform the landscape of cinema. This group known today as the L.A Rebellion filmmakers is loosely defined as a group of UCLA students who created radical films of Black liberation over the course of a three decade span. Among them were filmmakers such as Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima, Jamaa Fanaka, Barbara McCullough, Larry Clark, Ben Caldwell, and later Alile Sharon Larkin, Melvonna Ballenger, O. Funmilayo Makarah, Zeinabu irene Davis, Carroll Parrott Blue and Julie Dash. The connective strand that shaped all members of the Rebellion, each distinct in their approach to storytelling, was a specific notion of the meaning of ‘cinema’ itself that refused to rest on pre-existing structures of narrative and filmmaking. Thus the movement and films that followed became characterized by their self-conscious intent to actively formulate a distinctly Black cinema.

In the past decade the L.A. Rebellion movement has been celebrated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive as part of its institution’s history, belying the reality that they were a group of filmmakers who thrived in spite of the institution. Part of the mythology and revisionism of the L.A. Rebellion has positioned the collective as a group of industry neglected Black people who couldn’t get work or recognition within Hollywood, instead of the culturally, politically and cinematically anti-Hollywood filmmakers that they were. Some of the more well-known films from the time, such as Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Gerima’s Bush Mama as well as Dash’s Daughters of the Dust were able to carve out their own cinematic blueprint.

The cultural and historical achievements of the L.A School of Black Filmmakers were so significant precisely because of its members’ awareness of their position within the historical legacy of resistance. They were explicit in their connection to a community that had a continued desire for work that was for and spoke to them. Their close study of different national and transnational filmmaking and literary traditions emerging at the time was central to the formation of the visual poetics in their films. Their wide range of influences included the literature of Ngugi Wa’Thiongo’s Homecoming and Richard Wright’s American Hunger as well as Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which became a central text.  They were also heavily influenced by the Cuban cinema of Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Humberto Solas, Santiago Alvarez, among others, for their methods of translating revolution and art into cinema. These films provided a shift in the politics of cinematic thought. With these progenitors in mind, the films being made at UCLA became a proposal for thinking of aesthetics as a means of envisioning new ways of being in the world that were distinctly Black.

Films like Gerima’s Bush Mama and Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts visualized an awareness of the political and cultural history of African Americans in Los Angeles, and in particular that of the Watts rebellion. Not to mention they articulated an alternative landscape to the L.A’s of Polanski and Hanson’s imaginations. These films became undeniably important historical precursors to the vision of L.A that would later be presented through the Hughes Brothers’ Boyz n the Hood and John singleton’s Menace II Society. Many of the films that came out of the L.A Rebellion movement translated through cinema just how much of the world and civil society is a non black space. Their efforts dismantled the foundations of white cinema’s primacy.

All of their films were indebted to and could not have happened if not for the spirit of the Black liberation movements occurring at the time, and more widely to that of all Black people on the move politically. The black political imagination and its resistance becomes necessary to many of the movies that were being made, in the same way White apathy was necessary for white political cinema (for example, the work of Emile De Antonio, Haskell Wexler, etc.). The nature of the cinematic ecosystem and the economic power of white supremacist self interest led to unfortunately inevitable issues for the movement’s sustainability (in addition to the lack of resources that came with leaving school, including access to equipment and channels of distribution). If Audre Lorde was right, if the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, then white money was never going to fund a Black radical cinema.

Child of Resistance (1972)

On October 13th, 1970 Angela Davis was recaptured in New York on charges of murder and kidnapping. That night as Haile Gerima slept he dreamt up the film that would become Child of Resistance, a 35 minute short film inspired by the trial of Angela Davis that would become a significant contribution to the L.A. Rebellion canon. Child of Resistance opens inside a prison cell where an unnamed black woman prisoner provides a voiceover monologue lamenting the state of the black radical tradition. As the scenes move from one instance of degradation to another, her stream of consciousness gets more and more urgent in projecting her cries for black liberation.[1]

Both within and without the frame, Gerima links the iconography of Davis symbolically and historically to that of George Jackson, the revolutionary prison abolitionist that Davis would famously be charged for plotting and arming a fatal attempt. The subconscious dialogue that narrates the movie could easily have been taken from the pages of Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, both his words and his sentiments are given life throughout the film. George Jackson’s literature was an important undercurrent for the possibilities of a ‘Black cinema,’ a fact not lost on Gerima who has championed his work more than any academic since. His juxtaposition of visual concepts throughout his writings are important cinematic ciphers in interrogating the grammars of black suffering. This is a poignant comparison to the outright suppression of the American prison system’s extreme violence that is profuse in mainstream Hollywood narratives. As places of normalized captivity and punishment, the prisons of Hollywood’s conception are sites of individual redemption and boundless hope, an obvious obfuscation of the exceedingly hopeless reality that the prison industrial complex is just a modern iteration of the plantation system. Jackson’s writing and Gerima’s script elucidate a history that accounts for the racist, capitalistic, and misogynistic practices that illuminate this shift from slave labor to the neo-slavery of the prison industrial complex. 

As the film progresses, the prisoner is led through a bar by a guard dressed in a hybrid pastiche of a colonial settler and a police chief. She moves in shackles amidst a crowd of black people leisurely drinking and chatting who are likewise chained to one another, though it is only the unnamed prisoner who seems fully aware of this fact. The image offersvisual form to what Jackson referred to as the “‘flea market’ of fascism and consumer capitalism.” Back in her cell,  she reaches out from between the bars to black men who remain just beyond her grasp as they lay in a drug-induced torpor. Similarly, another group of men outside her cell superficially bang against its bars with mallets, an image of impotent revolution that is futile in its singularity. Through such metaphors Gerima catalogues not only the experience of black life under white supremacy but also the various ways in which this experience distracts and impedes total liberation.

Through the spectre of Jackson, Child of Resistance consciously situates itself among a continuous history of prison abolition and black liberation more broadly, is the backbone of the movement’s continued resonance in today’s cultural and political climate. Their films, although formed in a moment of political urgency, are able to animate the complex struggles of resistance that remain extant to this day. While in conversation with the past and present of black liberation, the film’s ending opens itself up to a dialogue with the future. The unnamed prisoner runs down a long hallway towards a red light, never quite arriving but continuing nonetheless. In this way Child of Resistance is both of its moment and beyond it. In the closing credits she speaks of revolutionary love and we’re transported, instead of the traditional credits screen, to the words of George Jackson in Soledad Brother:

“ If I leave here alive, I’ll leave nothing behind/ They’ll never count me among the broken men/ but I can’t say that I am normal either/ I’ve been hungry too long. I’ve gotten angry too often/ I’ve been lied to and insulted too many times/ They’ve pushed me over the line/ from which there can be no retreat.”- George Jackson, Soledad Brother.

[1] The larger narrative of Child of Resistance is also relevant within the context of Gerima’s own canon and the ways thathe revisits his own cinematic language. The fate of the unnamed prisoner could very well be the fate of Gerima’s protagonist in his feature debut Bush Mama (1975), which follows a black woman named Dorothy as she navigates L.A.’s policing and welfare systems, a reality that awakens her political consciousness when she is captured and imprisoned.

WORKS CITED

Wilderson III, F. B. (2010). Red, white & black: Cinema and the structure of US antagonisms. Duke University Press.

Masilela, N. (1993). The Los Angeles school of black filmmakers. Black American Cinema, 107-117.

 

ABOUT THE WRITER: Kariima Ali is a freelance photographer based in London and co- founder of the art collective Black British Girlhood. When she's not desperately trying to find a language to write about the films she loves, she's watching re-runs of the office." IG: @kariima.a Twitter: @Itsablurtbh.