Iconic Angelenos in Black History: Ben Caldwell

In honor of Black History Month, join us each day from February 10th to the 19th as we celebrate Black Angelenos who have influenced culture, social justice, and progress in Los Angeles and, in some instances, the nation.

Today we celebrate Ben Caldwell:


It must take a mighty thick skin to build a community-based, education-focused media center just a (metaphoric) stone's throw from the sound stages of Hollywood. Such work calls for the intestinal fortitude to ignore the smart money's dismissal of your quaint devotion to collective work, as well as a willingness to forgive students whose progress will ultimately be measured by their ability to take what they've been taught and run with it... as far away from you as their feet, talents and a few more lucky breaks can take them.

Or, it takes a certain kind of love to build said media center. Educator and documentary filmmaker Ben Caldwell has long been an exemplar of that sort of stubborn, revolutionary love, a form of devotion for which there are many, many historical precedents but increasingly fewer living avatars. Caldwell's love is not just a love of black people although it is in the black art enclave of Los Angeles that his reputation would be made.

Born in New Mexico in 1945, Caldwell remembers assisting his grandfather in his work as a projectionist in a small town movie theater, his earliest memories a kind of colored Cinema Paradiso where an attenuated Hollywood apprenticeship and the patent oddities of being a black child in splendid desert isolation combined to work a curious alchemical magic on him. Caldwell would grow up to be an iconic citizen of black Los Angeles, but first he had to come here, attend UCLA, fall in with the wrong early '70s crowd (Caldwell and his cohort's adventures in black filmmaking were recently the subject of the UCLA Film Archives' L.A. Rebellion series ), and make a life for himself. That life would encompass a series of documentaries and experimental narrative films, as well as founding the KAOS Network community art center, which has not only produced entire generations of South L.A. trained filmmakers, technicians, web designers, artists, and animators, but a whole slew of MC's through its Project Blowed open-mic night. Looking at his accomplishments, it is possible to forget that Caldwell was in some ways a convert to black Los Angeles, but this often the way of such lives: it often takes a convert's zeal to show us how it's done.

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Caldwell studied filmmaking at UCLA, with Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Billy Woodberry.

Caldwell's love of film was honed helping his grandfather as a projectionist in New Mexico.

Founded KAOS Network in 1984 in Leimert Park. KAOS teaches local youth video production, web design, filmmaking and other technical skills, and is the only such organization in South Los Angeles.

KAOS is home to Project Blowed, a weekly open-mic workshop that groomed acts such Aceyalone, Medusa, Busdriver, Freestyle Fellowship and Jurassic Five.

Caldwell's films often deal with history and culture, starting with his UCLA thesis project Medea (1973), which looked at how black children absorb history, to the more recent La Buena Vida (The Good Life) (2008), which documents a series of encounters between L.A. rappers and a group in Havana, Cuba.





As we continue celebrating Black History Month with daily portraits of iconic Angelenos, check back for more features on other pioneering individuals and make sure to share this history with your friends and family. Click here for more portraits.










About the Author

I'm Director of New Media for KCET. Previous to working at KCET, I built and managed websites for NPR West, AOL, Community Connect and other orgs. My writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Vibe Magazine, Essence, The Root, Int...
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