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In Every Era, Black Filmmakers of L.A. Struggle to Tell Their Stories

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Long before it became the norm to document all aspects of one's life, filmmaker Gregory "G-Bone" Everett was ahead of his time.

Over four decades, beginning in the 1980s, Everett amassed a giant archive of material spanning from in-depth interviews with founders of the Southern California chapter of Black Panthers, to behind the scenes content from dance parties in the '80s and early gangster rap music videos sets from the '90s.

"He always had [a camera] in the car," Everett's friend, Dr. Daniel Walker, an author and co-producer of this series, said during an interview last year. "Some of the stuff [he captured] is just the B-roll and no one will ever see it. And then sometimes he caught some frickin' gems."

A black and white man in a sweater and sunglasses.
Gregory Everett in his first production gig in 1982. | Courtesy of the Gregory Everett archive

Everett was often around to capture movements that developed in the 'hood years before they reached a national platform. His work is not only a valuable capsule of a moment in time, but an important record of the contributions of the Black community in making L.A. what it is.

During the mid-1980s he documented dance parties that he organized and DJ'd at for the under 21 crowd. Everret compiled footage of dance teams competing against one another on the dance floor as well as interviews with the thousands of teens that came to see them battle.

The movement, known as Ultra Wave, attracted celebrities and future celebs like Ice T and Nia Long, today it's seen as a precursor to west coast gangster rap.

In the 1990s, Everett documented another dance movement taking over known as Krumping. Everett was directing hip-hop music videos at the time. Years later, celebrity photographer David LaChapelle chronicled the movement in, "Rize," an award winning feature length documentary.

"He understood the importance of [documentation]," Everett's son, Jeffery, explains what motivated his father to not only document these subcultures but also preserve the material. "He was a historian. It was important to have video evidence of what he did."

"If you ever drove with him, like, he would be the guy who'd be like, 'right there is Freedmen's bank,' and 'you don't know, right there is such and such,'" Walker recalls.

An African American man on the phone while editing Super 8 with a background of flyers.
Gregory Everett working the phone while editing Super 8 film. Party flyers are used as a background. | Photo courtesy of Rick "Rick Rock" Aaron. Flyers courtesy of Lawrence Gilliam.

When Everett died last year of complications due to COVID-19, most importantly he left behind a young wife and two sons. But he also left behind a massive archive of untold stories and incomplete projects.
Sifting through all that material without having intimate knowledge of its contents is a daunting task that nobody has signed up for yet.

"The person that shot the footage will sometimes be the only person that can make sense of some things," filmmaker and friend, Matthew McDaniel, explains during an interview. Since 1986, McDaniel has accumulated hundreds of hours of footage of west coast hip-hop icons like Eazy E and NWA. Around the same time, McDaniel met Everett at one of his parties.

In the early 2000s, McDaniel began digitizing and licensing his work. Eventually he picked up an agent. Since then, he's licensed footage and photos to over 350 projects. "For someone else to come along [and make sense of the material]...that's really difficult."

McDaniel says context is key. "The person that's holding the camera has a lot of back story information." The more time that passes and the more footage in the archive, the more challenging it is to go through, McDaniel says.

Two African American men shaking hands in front of a Black Panther designed wall.
Gregory Everett and Matthew McDaniel | Courtesy of Matthew McDaniel

"That's something that G-bone and I shared, he definitely understood the importance of what was going on around him, a very potent time in history…the '80s," says McDaniel. "He was my dear friend and I miss him dearly."

Like many of Los Angeles' most well-respected Black filmmakers that came before and after Everett and McDaniel, such as Jon Singleton and Ava Duvernay, the two friends told stories about their community from the perspective of someone from the community.

Best known for his award-winning, independently produced, feature-length documentary, "41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers," Everett Was motivated to tell the story in part because his father was a Black Panther.

"Democracy Now!" speaks to historian Robyn C. Spencer, who wrote a piece, “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda,” and Carvell Wallace, whose piece, “Why Black Panther Is a Defining Moment for Black America,” appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
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"That's what the beauty and value of what Gregory's work was. You know he was documenting the Panthers in L.A. when other people weren't or had kind of forgotten about that history, " says Zeinabu irene Davis, independent filmmaker and professor in the Department of Communications at the University of California, San Diego.

Davis established herself as a filmmaker at the tail end of the Black filmmaking movement that took place at UCLA, known as The L.A. Rebellion. Following the Watts Uprising in 1965, UCLA and many other institutions implemented changes that spurred an influx of students of color at the university.

In the 1980s, Davis enrolled in a masters program at UCLA and became a part of the movement. In 2015, she produced a documentary film, "Spirits of The Rebellion," that connects with filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion and explores the movement's impacts on the legacy of Black filmmaking.

"People always talking about how things got burnt down [during the Watts Uprising]. But they don't necessarily pay attention, as much as they should, to the organizations or institutions that came out of it," Davis said during an interview with KCET.

The Watts Rebellion resulted in 34 deaths, tens of millions of dollars in damages and more than a thousand injuries but ultimately it led to a reinvestment in the community in other areas, such as the arts. "It opened up a space for people to come to UCLA who were from black, brown, red, yellow communities," says Davis.

In her film "Spirits of the Rebellion," Davis describes the movement as, "the first ongoing effort of a collective of Black film artists in the United states to create a form of cinema attentive to the lives and concerns of their own communities."

Finishing a film is a war. When you finish a film, the next war is the neglect, the uninterested, the so-called industry that tells you your mother's story is invalid, it's not a story.
Haile Gerima, filmmaker

The L.A. Rebellion produced groundbreaking films such as "Bush Mama," "Killer of Sheep" and "Urban Right For Purification" by filmmakers like Julie Dash, Ben Caldwell and Haile Gerima. Many of the films that came out of the movement were experimental and unconventional in a narrative sense. But they also offered a rare glimpse into Black life in Los Angeles that was rarely seen in mainstream media.

In Gerima's thesis film "Bush Mama" for instance, the filmmaker inadvertently captured a tense and violent interaction between his film crew and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), in which the crew was briefly held at gunpoint. Coincidentally, the film was a critique on the expansion of the police state. Despite the film being scripted, this unintentional scene captured on camera was worked into the film.

Recently honored with the inaugural vanguard award at the opening of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Gerima is known for circumventing the traditional Hollywood system and distributing his own films.

"For Black filmmakers, Chicano and Native American filmmakers, you have no choice. It's all hostility you meet," Gerima said during a recent discussion with fellow UCLA grad Ava Duvernay. "Finishing a film is a war. When you finish a film, the next war is the neglect, the uninterested, the so-called industry that tells you your mother's story is invalid, it's not a story,"

World Premiere Of "Sankofa"
Los Angeles, California - (L-R) Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, ARRAY president Tinale Jones, director Haile Gerima and guests attend the World Premiere of "Sankofa" on September 24, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. | JC Olivera/Getty Images

"Yes. We definitely wanted to entertain people, you know, people want be entertained by cinema…But I think, you know, you don't always see yourself reflected in those kinds of stories." Davis, the professor from UCSD, said during an interview.

More contemporary Black creators like Everett, Singleton, Ice Cube, Duvernay and Issa Rae have similarly leaned on their unique perspectives and determination to forge their own paths into an industry that is notoriously white and nepotistic.

John Singleton's feature-length directorial debut "Boyz N The Hood" is a South L.A.-centered coming of age story that drew from his own experiences growing up in Los Angeles. He wrote the film while applying to film school and sold it shortly after graduating.

The film launched the careers of Cuba Gooding Jr, Nia Long and Ice Cube, who at the time was known as a rapper. Years later, Ice Cube pulled together a shoestring budget to make "Friday," the semi-autobiographical stoner cult classic that offered a more playful view of life in the 'hood and spawned into a franchise.

Duvernay's second feature film, 'Middle of Nowhere', offered a more nuanced look at life in Compton, the neighboring community to where she grew up, on a budget of around $200,000. The film was shot in less than 20 days (most films take double the amount of time). Looking back on the film, Duvernay said she received three more shooting days than her first feature film. "One day maybe I'll get out of the teens!" she joked with Indie Wire.

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Los Angeles, California - Tristen J. Winger, Leonard Robinson, Sarunas Jackson, Courtney A. Taylor, Yvonne Orji, Jean Elie, Issa Rae, Jay Ellis and Christina Elmore attend HBO Celebrates The Final Season Of 'Insecure' With Insecure Fest on October 23, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. | Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for HBO

More recently, Issae Rae capped off the fifth and final series of "Insecure", a revolutionary show seeped in Los Angeles culture in which Rae plays an alter ego.

Like the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion as well as Everett's generation and more contemporary auteurs, uniting all these important Black filmmakers is a desire to tell stories that reflect the communities that they know and oftentimes grew up in, despite the odds.

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