Revolutionary Cinema, the L.A. Rebellion, & Straight Outta Compton

This week in my Transnational Media Theory course, we are talking about revolutionary cinema. Revolutionary cinema is a type of filmmaking that is in a state of resistance to two things. Typically, it is concerned with resisting neocolonialism, which can be understood as the more subtle patterns of domination that formerly colonized nations and peoples continue to experience, primarily in the Third World. Academics Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, in their article “Towards a Third Cinema”, highlight that for neocolonialized persons, “just as they are not masters of the land upon which they walk, [they] are not masters of the ideas that envelop them” (268). As a result, revolutionary cinema aims to challenge and replace the ideas enveloping such societies. Solanas and Gettino go on to say, “Truth, then, amounts to subversion. Any form of expression or communication that tries to show national reality is subversion” (269). Revolutionary cinema aims to do so, but it does not only concern itself with resisting ideology; it is also focused on resisting the dominant aesthetic of Hollywood films.

These two commitments are interrelated because unless an audience’s aesthetic expectations are challenged, their ideologies often remain unshaken. In dominant cinematic forms, or first cinema as Solanas and Gettino label them, “the cinema as a spectacle aimed at a digesting object is the highest point . . . man is viewed as a consumer of ideology” (272). Second cinema attempts to provide an alternative to this model, but it is Third Cinema that Solanas and Gettino believe truly liberates a person’s mind. Third cinema does so through one of two ways: “making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System” (273). In Cynthia Young’s “Shot in Watts,” she also explores cinema that attempts to resist the system, citing Paul Willeman who says, “The notion of counter-cinema tends to conjure up a prescriptive aesthetics: to do the opposite of what dominant cinema does. Hence the descriptive definition of dominant cinema will dictate the prescriptive definition of counter-cinema” (217). Third Cinema, as a type of revolutionary cinema, refuses to settle for this type of opposition and instead chooses to construct its own, more complex, conceptions of resistance.

Though Watts is a community situated within the First World United States, Young reminds her readers that its “residents experienced the kind of extreme poverty, discrimination, and violent policing that provoked comparison with Third world colonized peoples.” In response, a group of African and African-American filmmakers at UCLA during the early 1970s began to incorporate Watts into their films as a representation of the “various contradictions at the heart of U.S. democracy” (Young, 220). This group became known as the L.A. School or L.A. Rebellion, and their work developed into new iterations of revolutionary cinema, heavily influenced by Third Cinema. Unlike other movements, the L.A. School did not share a common aesthetic but was unified rather by its members’ commitment to critically engaging dominant ideologies and imageries. Throughout most of its members’ films, the audience was urged to engage and act in response to what it saw, the film’s aesthetics always in service to the ideology and never vice-versa.

As I was reading about the L.A. Rebellion’s investment in storytelling situated in Watts, I immediately thought of the recent film Straight Outta Compton (SOC) set in a neighboring community within Los Angeles. Like several L.A. Rebellion films, SOC tells a story about police brutality and discrimination within the United States. Unlike these films, however, SOC falls solidly into the category of first cinema, providing an excellent example of a film that fundamentally is not revolutionary. Visually and structurally SOC follows a predictable Hollywood model, where images and cuts unsubtly manipulate the viewer’s emotions. While the members of N.W.A are by no means portrayed as saints, their narratives are still carefully trimmed to be suitably identifiable to the audience and to fit a rewarding Hero’s Journey. Significant vocal female characters are essentially non-existent, replaced with a slew of silent, hyper-sexualized women in the background, playing into Hollywood’s constructed expectation of the audience’s heterosexual male gaze. I would argue that any attempts to thoughtfully and positively represent the community of Compton within the film are sadly displaced and/or undermined by the filmmakers’ participation in these forms of dominant cinema.

Returning to Solanas and Gettino, they remind their reader that:

 The existence of a revolutionary cinema is inconceivable without the constant and methodical exercise of practice, search, and experimentation. . . . The man of the third cinema above all counters the film industry of a cinema of characters with one of themes, that of individuals with that of masses, that of the author with that of the operative group, one of neocolonial misinformation with one of information, one of escape with one that recaptures the truth, that of passivity with that of aggressions (278, 284).

 SOC lacks in a commitment to experimentation and opposition, and unlike revolutionary cinema, it prioritizes certain individuals and their lives over the community and its larger story. While it is clear that Straight Outta Compton does not classify as revolutionary cinema, what it has achieved is a reminder that the public does need films that will boldly reveal the contradictions in contemporary American democracy. For now, individual visual storytelling through mobile video apps seems to be somewhat fulfilling that role, but I am intrigued to see how experimentation with modern digital tools may lead to an evolution of the next era of revolutionary cinema.

Media Cited:
This week’s featured image is courtesy of Jay Mantri and Pexels. It is licensed for reuse under the CC0 license.
Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Gettino. “Towards a Third Cinema.” Film and Theory: An Anthology. By Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 265-85. Print.
Young, Cynthia Ann. “Shot in Watts.” Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. 209-44. Print.

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