JUNE 29, 2018
FILM FANS AND CRITICS are prone to conflate the politics of representation with the politics of production, sometimes valuing both over a film’s artistic merit. Excitement around the long-overdue hiring of female and minority artists to helm major film projects, for example, has led to a slippage whereby a director’s identity is read directly into the film text. This has made us more eager than ever to interpret mainstream movies, made under the aegis of Hollywood studios and following the formula of franchise blockbusters, as progressive or even revolutionary in their ideology. But not all films require serpentine interpretive moves to prove that they both reflect and affect history.
In Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public History, 1958-1977, Joshua Glick explores the production and reception of documentaries and films with documentary elements like The Exiles (1961), The Making of a President: 1960 (1963) and Wattstax (1973), which were tightly connected to the social reality of the city in which they were shot. Respectively, these films emerged from the everyday lives of Native Americans in the soon-to-be-razed Bunker Hill, the New Frontier boosterism of John F. Kennedy, and the community concert in 1972 Watts. Glick uses public history as an analytical framework and draws on rich archival sources to show how documentary film in this era was one arena in which ideas about the past entered cultural consciousness.
In Glick’s book, the commercial film industry’s top-down delivery of public history is embodied by Wolper Productions. This large production company made, among many other movies and television programs, documentaries like The Race for Space (1958), starry clip-shows including Hollywood: The Fabulous Era (1962), and, most famously, the historical miniseries Roots (1977). In so doing, Wolper Productions presented a reassuring history of the United States that comforted viewers and effaced current social crises. On the other side of the documentary field were left-leaning artists and activists that used independent film and local public television series to give voice to underrepresented groups and advocate for social justice. Many made work to be used by organizations fighting for Black Power, Yellow Power, the Chicano movement, and the women’s movement, blending entertainment with activism. Examples from Glick’s study include documentaries The Exiles and Chicano Moratorium: The Aftermath (1970), KCET program Doin’ It at the Storefront (1972–’73), and fiction film Killer of Sheep (1977).
This strict division between top-down and bottom-up documentary production may seem over-determined, but Glick shades his analysis by joining it with a robust history of the documentary film industry in Los Angeles. Glick traces a detailed history of the working relationships that filmmakers forged during these years. He shows the overlap in personnel among Wolper Productions, independent productions, the Human Affairs department at KCET, UCLA’s Ethno-Communications department, and the Asian-American filmmaking collective Visual Communications. By exploring the institutions and modes of production each employed, Glick’s comparisons of films about certain topics — the police, the Vietnam War, or the redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles — take on greater depth.
Chapters alternate between Wolper Productions and more independent makers, institutions, collectives, and universities. Formed in 1955, David Wolper’s company was a new kind of independent production company that capitalized on the waning power of Hollywood studios and the voracious demand for programming to fill the three networks’ schedules. While Wolper Productions also co-produced theatrical films Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and sitcoms Chico and the Man (1974–’78) and Welcome Back, Kotter (1975–’79), Glick concentrates on the studio’s television documentaries. He makes the strong case that these documentaries were largely responsible for burnishing the image, and then the memory, of President Kennedy. This direct relationship with political power continued, with Wolper producing a (shelved) film for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, serving on President Gerald Ford’s American Revolution Bicentennial Advisory Council, and planning the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Glick’s second chapter outlines filmmaker Kent Mackenzie’s career, and it serves as a guide for understanding subsequent chapters about filmmakers working in both independent and studio contexts. Mackenzie’s USC thesis film, Bunker Hill — 1956 (1956), is a short, traditional expository documentary that argued against the redevelopment of Bunker Hill and the displacement of its elderly population. Mackenzie continued to work in the same geographic area on his more well-known film The Exiles, but he used a different style and focused on a different group. The Exiles is a poetic documentary that about three American Indians living in Bunker Hill. Influenced by the French New Wave, The Exiles is not an activist film. Rather, its political valance is implicit: the film renders American Indians as complex characters, dignifying their daily struggles and relationship to their heritage. Mackenzie drew on his filmmaking community to complete the independent project. At the same time, he worked for Wolper Productions and the United States Information Agency. While these assignments constrained his filmmaking practice and were made for very different exhibition contexts, it is interesting to note the similarities between Mackenzie’s independent production and his work for the USIA. A Skill for Molina (1964), for example, is a lyrical portrait of a Chicano man enrolled in a job-training program in order to better his and his family’s life. Somewhat formally similar to The Exiles, the USIA circulated A Skill for Molina around the world not as an independent, arthouse film, but as proof of the American Dream in action.
While the beginning of Los Angeles Documentary highlights documentaries made by white male filmmakers, Glick similarly details the people and institutions that developed and supported marginalized people’s ability to represent themselves in media. KCET’s Human Affairs department, for example, was a key framework for making community-engaged documentaries and nonfiction series at the newly formed public television station. Jesús Salvador Treviño made documentaries like Chicano Moratorium: The Aftermath (1970), about a march against the Vietnam War that drew 20,000 Chicanos to Los Angeles; América Tropical (1971), about the 1932 creation of a controversial mural by artist David Alfaro Siqueiros; and Yo Soy Chicano (1972), which tells the history of Chicano people from pre-Columbian times to the present. Sue Booker took a different tack with a local series for KCET called Doin’ It at the Storefront (1972–’73). Shot in a “storefront” studio in South Central, this was more than a public television show: the studio’s open-door policy invited residents from the predominantly black community to bring news stories in, and it also served as a community center for meetings about health, education, and the arts.
The black independent film movement nurtured by the Ethno-Communications program at UCLA, commonly known as the L.A. Rebellion, has received well-deserved attention recently. Beginning with the 2007 restoration of the 1977 film Killer of Sheep (dir. Charles Burnett), film series and books like L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema have encouraged more people to view the work of artists like Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, and Haile Gerima. But Glick emphasizes that there were other minority filmmaking groups working within the same milieu. In 1970, Robert Nakamura, Eddie Wong, Duane Kubo, and Alan Ohashi formed the collective Visual Communications (VC) to make and show work about Asian-American identity. They screened their films, including Manzanar (1971), about a Japanese internment camp, and Wong Sinsaang (1971), about Wong’s father’s public and private life, at churches, community centers, and elementary schools. They also led post-screening discussions, interacting with their audience and community in ways that a television broadcast would preclude.
Glick does not shy away from discussing films made for political advocacy that ultimately did not serve that purpose. The short-lived filmmaking collective Los Angeles Newsreel, an outpost of the San Francisco–based California Newsreel, made Repression (1970) with and for the L.A. chapter of the Black Panthers. It portrays the Panthers’ programs for helping the black community in South Central and argues for working people of all races to band together in an armed resistance. However, when it was completed, the Panthers deemed the film too militant to be used for recruitment or education.
He also tackles the complicated history of Wattstax, a documentary of the 1972 Watts Summer Festival concert and a portrait of the Watts community. This was a high-stakes project for both Stax Records, which was trying to get into the movie business, and the studio they partnered with, Wolper Productions. Though Wolper Productions was hired for its expertise in the field of documentary filmmaking, Stax executives retained editorial control of the film, ensuring that it would represent Stax musicians and the community of Watts in the proper light.
Glick continues his investigation into Wolper Productions’s approach to black-themed stories with Roots. He traces the development of the project, from its spark in a conversation between Wolper and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, to efforts to include African-American writers and directors in the production. The extremely popular miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s best seller, undoubtedly influenced viewers’ understanding of America’s legacy of slavery. Glick also compares Roots to Killer of Sheep. At this point, Glick is on shaky ground. The framework of public history is not strong enough to support comparisons between fiction films made in different modes of production, within different genres, and for different taste cultures. It is not surprising, nor particularly illuminating, that a big-budget, multipart production made for television and an independently made MFA thesis film have different ideological bents. The comparison also detracts from the focus on ostensible documentary films. Nevertheless, since both films about black experience were completed in Los Angeles in the same year, mentioning them in the same breath evokes the wide range of work being made at any one time.
And ultimately, that is Los Angeles Documentary’s greatest contribution: by detailing the profusion of documentaries made in Los Angeles during this time period, it is an argument against the press releases and tweets that claim one popular film or television show captures the zeitgeist. Instead, Glick shows how groups struggle to take ownership of the current moment by producing, distributing, and exhibiting documentary media. The book is an encouragement to engage, now, with documentaries being made at the grassroots level by activist filmmakers and collectives, rather than waiting for the glossy, neutered account of the struggle.