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Interview: Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry on The LA Rebellion

May 22, 2017
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In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s just after the Watts Riots in Los Angles and the Civil Rights Movement, a group of Black filmmakers entered school at UCLA. In response to the Blaxploitation films that were saturated in Hollywood, over the course of the next twenty years, these students created a new type of cinema in response to the stereotypes about Black people that were being upheld in Hollywood’s studio system. They worked together as a collective supporting one another and creating stories that had a sense of Black Pride and dignity.

Two of these students were Charles Burnett whose films“Killer of Sheep,”and “To Sleep With Anger” have forever changed the cinema landscape and Billy Woodberry whose film,“Bless Their Little Hearts”continues to be culturally and historically relevant. Both “Bless Their Little Hearts” and “Killer of Sheep” have been preserved by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Recently, at an apartment in Harlem, I sat down to speak with both Mr. Burnett and Mr. Woodberry about their iconic films, the period of the LA Rebellion and the state of cinema today.

Aramide Tinubu: Thank you so much for speaking with me and congratulations to the both of you of the 40th anniversary of “Killer of Sheep” and the digital restoration of “Bless Their Little Hearts.”

Charles Burnett: Thank you.

Billy Woodberry: No problem.

AT: “Killer Of Sheep” and “Bless Their Little Hearts” are part of the LA Rebellion which comes right after the Blaxploitation era in Hollywood. What inspired you both to make your films during this time and to go the independent route?

CB: I was in school just as Blaxploitation began to emerge. We got into film right after the Civil Rights Movement, so that was our motivation. It was to correct all of those strange narratives in Hollywood about our reality. I was at UCLA at the time, and when more Black students came into the department, it opened this dialogue, and we started trying to develop what Black film was a group. Most of us didn’t make our films through grants or anything like that because UCLA gave us all of the equipment. You just had to buy your own film and pay for the processing, and the rest was pretty much your own labor. It wasn’t this relationship between funder and director that you have now where they want to change things. So, we had total freedom in that regard, and now it’s a bit different. We were just trying to tell our stories, and we didn’t have any idea, at least I didn’t about how to market or distribute the films. I just felt that it would happen and that we would get the films out, but I never thought that I would male a living off of it. It was just something you did. I thought I would be working another job while doing this on the side. When other students of color came in, there was a collective idea of what we should be doing. But, it wasn’t until some period later that the idea of the LA Rebellion came about because we were reacting against the Hollywood tradition about Black stories.

BW: LA Rebellion was film scholar Clyde Taylor’s concept. He labeled it during the early ‘80s and it sort of just stuck. It took like twenty more years for it to become current.

AT: I know that you both worked together on “Bless Their Little Hearts,” how did that come about?

BW: It probably started because I was trying to meet Charles and get to know him and I had made a short movie.

AT: “The Pocketbook”?

BW: Yes, and the last scene in the movie, the shooting was not good, so he proposed that we should do it again, so we did that, and that was my first chance to really work with him. After that, we began to spend a lot of time talking, looking at movies, talking about books and driving around looking for locations and things like that. So, when it was time for me to propose my thesis project, I was looking around and trying to adapt books and things like that but then Charles told me he had the story, and that’s how it happened. He knew the things I claimed to be interested in so he challenged me; he wanted to see if I could make these things meaningful and make sense. We just ended up putting it together, but he worked with a lot of people. Usually what would happen is that we worked on each other’s films, that’s how we learned. That’s how we gained trust.

AT: That makes sense.

BW: When we first started “Bless Their Little Hearts” we had a lot of crew. But eventually they had to go make their own films, and they had to do other things, but we had a substantial crew to start with.

CB: That’s the only way you can make films by depending on other people.

BW: I’m gonna expose , he didn’t want to ask them. He just didn’t; he felt like it would be challenging. So he did a lot of it by himself. (Laughing)

CB: At UCLA you had to get a few people from the department, so that was an ongoing thing. But, it was a good time. I’m certainly glad we came along at that time versus now.

Continue reading at Shadow and Act.