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Opening the Time Capsule: The Forgotten Era of Black Indie Film

02.27.15 Ian Blair

Last week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center concluded its beautiful ode to an era, “Tell it like it is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986.” The survey of more than a dozen titles produced during the period, some never-before seen, offered a peak into an unheralded, often forgotten moment of visual storytelling which is responsible for some of the most impressive and richly nuanced portraits of black life in film.

Most notably, “Tell It Like It Is” debuted Kathleen Collins’s marvelous feature Losing Ground, which she produced in 1982, nearly 30 years ago. Sadly, Collins would never have the satisfaction of seeing her work premiere on the big screen, passing away in 1988 at the young age of 46. The film, which tracks the life of a middle-class black couple — a young philosophy professor, Sarah (Seret Scott), and her artist husband, Victor (Bill Gunn) — examines ideas around feminism, modern marriage, and sexuality. As actors, both Scott and Gunn give incredibly dexterous and sincere performances which make the story all the more compelling and convincing. Perhaps that explains why the film, initially slated for a week-long run at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre, is now showing in its third consecutive week due to overwhelmingly popular demand. With any luck, Losing Ground, one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman, will take its rightful place in the New York independent canon (a testament one can only think is due, in part, to relentless advocating on behalf of Jake Perlin and Michelle Materre, who helped put this comprehensive survey together).

But “Tell It Like It Is” is more than a window into unseen gems. Its true success lies in its intimacy and its multi-dimensional portrayals of blackness. Each film — some spanning no more than 15 minutes, some nearly two hours — shows disparate and overlapping elements of quotidian life for black Americans, sometimes overtly, other times through more subtle means. In The Black Cop, a 1968 documentary, Kent Garrett deftly articulates the predicament of a public servant with split allegiances. Shot on a 16mm lens, Garrett frequently closes in on his subjects’ dark faces or trinkets of black identity — mid-length afros, black (Panther) trench coats, and other accessories. His lens, patient and steady, accentuates the fullness of his subjects’ lips and the sincerity in their eyes. In The Black GI (1971), Garrett captures the intoxicating allure of black power and the unwavering bravado of a platoon of black American soldiers in Vietnam. The shots are up-close and cinematic which makes the reported feature feel like an action flick. Blackness looks incredibly vivid and detailed: Garrett, who once worked in advertising, acutely fixates on each soldier’s sunglasses and the toothpicks in their mouths. The soldiers’ facial expressions are hardened and tempered, brazen and pessimistic. Outside of the battle zones, the black soldiers cluster together, discreetly discussing the discrimination, intimidation and harassment they face from their white superiors. In the middle of the conversation, the soldiers elaborately “dap” each other. In one scene, Garrett skillfully manages to convey the plight, pain and pride of the African-American GI.

In many ways, “Tell It Like It is” feels like peering into a viewfinder: As one flips through the kaleidoscope, a more complete and complex picture of black culture emerges. The program juxtaposes black individuality with the broader cultural and political traditions that affect black Americans as a whole. Jesse Maple’s Twice As Nice (1989) tells the story of twin sisters playing college basketball at Columbia, meditating on gender dynamics, family and collegiate athletics. William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), which remains as one of the best wildly experimental films in recent memory, toys with realism and truth in American cinema. Charles Lane’s 1977 silent film, A Place In Time asks, with incisive wit and humor, how the struggling artist can manage to find beauty through the burden and chaos of black American life. Strikingly, many of the questions raised still persist today.

The resonance of “Tell It Like It Is” in the present is, in part, a testament to how much of the era remains in our current aesthetic and creative consciousness. To watch Spike Lee’s 1983 debut feature film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads now feels like meeting an estranged uncle for the first time — similar to what you envisioned with shades of the familiar figure you know and love. Lee’s project, his New York University graduate film thesis, not only foreshadowed what we’ve now come to know as his signature directorial style — it also served as a prelude to his brilliant 1986 feature She’s Gotta Have It and the 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. Lee’s work, which has also opened industry doors for numerous black actors, helped transmute the borough of Brooklyn from a dilapidated working class community into the valuable piece of cultural real estate we know it to be today.

Ironically, “Tell It Like It Is” concludes just as the release of Lee’s independently-financed blood sucking love story, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, has reached theaters nationwide. The picture, already lauded by some critics, seems inseparable from our present moment: online streaming and Kickstarter has democratized who can make film and how it can be enjoyed, yet public broadcasts like Black Journal — which originally aired many of the films included in “Tell It Like It Is” — cease to exist. Now, we have to search longer and harder simply to find the canonical treasures buried right in front of our noses.

One wonders if our present era of film is too vast, too horizontal for our limited vision and memory. And equally vexing is whether we’re witnessing a period of artistic creation that might soon be forgotten. Is film history repeating itself? If it is, we stand to learn a lot from what “Tell It Like It Is” is saying. Hopefully, the gems of today, like Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, aren’t locked away and forgotten. But if by chance such misfortune occurs, one can only hope someone will dig up the time capsule, and let the contents stuffed inside speak for themselves.

(Image: She’s Gotta Have It)