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40 Years of Radical Media

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[This is an abridged version of the original document. For information on how to obtain the original version, please contact TWN.]

Los Angeles Newsreel1

David E. James

I.
In a 1932 New Masses review entitled "Movies and Revolution," Harry Potamkin argued that G. W. Pabst's Kameradschaft (Comradeship) posed a fundamental question of cinema: "Is it possible to create a proletarian cinema in capitalist America? Is it true that of all the media, excepting the radio, the movie is the severest in its resistance?" (1977, 513). A Los Angeles cinema of or for the working class has typically seemed a contradiction in terms, an impossibility whose place has always been preoccupied by its opposite, a cinema in the service of capital. In Potamkin’s review, however, he did find the gleam of a hopeful answer to his question; and he found it in a documentary about socialist organizer, Tom Mooney, made by the Los Angeles branch of the Workers’ Film and Photo League (WFPL), that he hailed as "one of the finest of dramatic newsreel-clips I have seen," and "the one potential source for an authentic American cinema" (513-14). In the period of the maturation of the WFPL’s legacy, the Los Angeles Newsreel in 1968-71 evidenced a similar insurgence whose history, like that of the Los Angeles League itself, has been lost. 2

II.
Los Angeles Newsreel began in October 1968 with a visit to the city by Paul Shinoff, a native of the city, who had been active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Valley College. After being beaten by police during an anti-war demonstration, he had left for San Francisco, where he was active at the beginning of Newsreel, shooting half of one of their earliest and most popular films, Off the Pig (a.k.a. Black Panther) and several others. At a screening hosted at the SDS headquarters, he showed Off the Pig, announcing at the screening that if people were interested in forming a Los Angeles Newsreel, San Francisco would help.

By early 1969, they had acquired two film projectors, Newsreel catalogues, and a number of films from San Francisco, including Por La Primera Vez (For the First Time) (Octavio Cortazar, 1967), A Day of Plane Hunting (1968), Cu Chi Guerilla Village (Vietnamese National Liberation Front), Madina Boe (Jose Massip, 1969), and Golpeando en la Selva (1968) by the great Cuban filmmaker, Santiago Alvarez. From New York Newsreel, they also obtained Chomsky-Resist (1968) and Up Against the Wall Miss America (1968) (1968). Reviving the WFPL’s practice of taking films into the workplace, they held screenings in factories, at libraries, welfare and unemployment offices, at union halls and Movement groups, and at schools and colleges. They also screened films at community centers in the Black and Chicano communities, and at the local art-house theater, the Fox Venice.

Though the LA group had a clear didactic organizing emphasis from their inception, they also considered making their own films. But the extremely rapid political developments of mid-1969 interrupted these plans.

By June 1969, the growing sense that only a revolution could bring about progressive social change caused SDS to disintegrate into splinter groups. The principal split occurred over the status of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Panthers. Only Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) embraced both, understanding the BPP as the vanguard of an imminent global revolution. The crucial event was the murder of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins at UCLA in February 1969, a murder that both the Panthers and Newsreel believed to have been committed by Ron Karenga’s US organization. 5

In response to the murders, L.A. Newsreel decided to devote their filmmaking efforts to a history of the black struggle, emphasizing the former’s community services rather than their militarism.

But even while L.A. Newsreel was subordinating itself to the Panthers, other developments were sowing the seeds of a move in a contrary direction.

Once the "Hollywood Newsreel", Los Angeles was now the "Maoist Newsreel," and those members not willing to abandon immediate cultural work in favor of disciplined preparation for long-term political organizing in factories began to drift away. 7 The "Panther Liberation film" was the immediate casualty.

On 8 December 1969, two days after the Illinois police murdered Deputy Chairman, Fred Hampton, the LAPD in collaboration with the FBI destroyed the Los Angeles Panther headquarters. Only community presence and support prevented the Panthers from being murdered but the destruction of the building effectively ended Panther leadership of the Black community in Los Angeles, opening the road for the recrudescence of the gangs. The film was again reconstructed, with added footage of the police presence and the destroyed building. The last version, a work print with a separate synchronized sound track, was called Repression. 8

In Repression, support for the Panthers is specifically translated into the need for a global working-class struggle against capital. No other Newsreel work is better structured or more compelling, and none better links the local and the global struggles.

With the destruction of the Panthers and the ex-Newsreel members’ turn to the international working class, there no longer existed any immediate agency who could serve as a focus for organizing; and since the political vision that had fueled it -- that is, of the BPP as the domestic vanguard of a global revolution -- no longer had any objective existence, Repression no longer had a function. By the end of 1970, the formal dissolution of Los Angeles Newsreel was announced to the other branches. 9

III.
The specificity of the Los Angeles Newsreel must be understood within the history of the national Newsreel movement as a whole and the international wave of early 1970’s guerrilla cinemas, the "Third Cinemas" of which it was in part the inspiration (Solanas and Gettino [1971] 1976, 45). But it is also necessary that the Los Angeles branch’s geographical specificity be recognized, so that it may be understood within the overall history of non-industrial, anti-capitalist cinemas in the city. The historical impossibility of its own completion, and then its own lost history are part of that larger repression.

List of Works Cited

Brown, Elaine. 1992. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. New York, Pantheon.

Haywood, Harry. 1978. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago, Liberator Press.

Hilliard, David and Lewis Cole. 1993. This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party. Boston, Little Brown.

James, David E. 1989. Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Potamkin, Harry Alan. 1977. The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin. New York, Teachers College Press.

Nichols, Bill. 1972. Newsreel: Film and Revolution. MA Thesis, UCLA.

—————-. 1980. Newsreel: Documentary Filmmaking on the American Left. New York, Arno Press.

Solanas, Fernando and Octavio Gettino. [1971] 1976. "Towards a Third Cinema." In Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Soja, Edward. 1989. Postmodern Geographies; The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. New York, Verso. >

Notes

1 Copyright David E. James, 1999. This essay was prepared with the assistance of an Irvine Foundation grant received by the Southern California Studies Center at the University of Southern California.

2 The only exception, and so the only printed source for information on the L.A. Newsreel is Bill Nichols’ UCLA M.A. thesis (1972), which has a chapter on the branch. The present account is based on interviews with several people who were members of the LA Newsreel, conducted in July 1997. For overviews of the Newsreel movement generally, see Nichols 1980, and James 1989, 213-36.

3UCLA film school, and in particular a special program founded in 1968 for minorities called the Ethno-Communications Program, was instrumental in approximately the same period for the inauguration of important African and Asian American cinemas in Los Angeles.

4 Descriptions are as given by Bill Nichols (1972, 341); no copy of the Prospectus has been found. Nichols also mentions a proposed film on AWOL GI’s and the Resistance effort that created a spit between "those with pacifist, humanitarian sentiments and those with a more explicitly Marxist perspective" (244). None of these projects were completed, though material shot for the first was included in Repression, discussed below.

5 Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter was Deputy Minister of Defense of the Los Angeles Panthers. Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt was also Deputy Minister of Defense, and Elaine Brown, Deputy Minister of Communications. Huggins, Cater, Pratt, and Brown were all enrolled in UCLA’s High Potential Program, a special program for ghetto youth (Brown 1992, 153). The Los Angeles chapter had considerable support, not only in the Black community, but also in the liberal academy, "appealing to brothers and sisters from both the Slauson and UCLA" in the words of Panther Defense Minister, David Hilliard (Hilliard and Cole 1993, 234). US (for United Slaves) was a cultural nationalist organization led by Ron Karenga, violently hostile to the Panthers’ trans-racial socialist program. Again according to Hilliard, in the fall of 1969, between the LAPD and US, the [Los Angeles] chapter lived under siege (259).

6 Figures from Soja 1989, 203.

7 For New York and San Francisco’s, mostly unsympathetic, attitudes to LA’s theoretical advances, see Nichols 972, 245-46.

8 These were discovered in Jonathan Aurthur’s possession in August 1997.

9 The films the group possessed continued to be distributed by local radical bookstores, first the Long March then Midnight Special, but without the accompanying speakers that the Newsreel had emphasized. Eventually they were donated to the Southern California Library for Social Studies & Research.

 

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