Haile Gerima's first student film Hour Glass (1971) portrays a Black student-athlete coming into political consciousness.1 From the opening  a severely low-angle black-and-white shot of the protagonist with the noose around his neck cued to the sound of a ticking clock the narrative arc of the 14-minute film follows the protagonist as he comes to understand and reject his exploitation on the UCLA basketball team, studies the literature of Black liberation and postcolonial theory in his dorm room, and ultimately leaves campus in the affluent Westwood neighborhood to return to the streets of the Black community.

The film registers his burgeoning alienation from the white university world with a battery of stylistic effects: in the extended basketball sequence at the beginning of the film, black-and-white footage of the protagonist playing is suddenly interrupted by garish, alternating color shots of the white audience in the mock-attitude of Roman emperors deciding his fate with their thumbs; the sound of the basketball game is interrupted by voices that the protagonist hears in his headthe spoken word poetry of the Last Poets, the political speeches of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis forming a subjective counter-rhythm to the basketball's oppressive rise and fall amidst the screeching sneakers. The contemplative quiet of the dorm room in which the protagonist reads Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois is broken by a hellish dream-sequence: a black child trapped in a kind of prison cell is repeatedly awoken again in a sudden flash of color film by a terrifying elderly white women who tears the covering sheets away from his body to reveal that they are iconic portraits of Black Civil Rights Leaders. As she hangs them upon the wall, the soundtrack erupts with gunfire and screams to signal that her action symbolically enacts the historical assassination of these figures. When this jailer attempts to remove a third sheet bearing the face of Angela Davis, the boy struggles defiantly to hang onto the image which then drapes across his naked body and offers him covering. An abrupt cut returns to the dorm room poster of Davis and the protagonist suddenly placing himself in front of the image to protect it from the predations of white power, as if to say that montage is now within his creative control rather than the sign of his divided consciousness. He can move in and out of the frame. This admittedly gendered fantasy constitutes the final epiphany for the protagonist, who promptly packs his bags and leaves for the Black community to the sound of Elaine Brown's "Seize the Time."

Still from Haile Gerima's Hour Glass (1971)

In Gerima's brief yet dense allegory, formal and thematic alienation from the white university world becomes the means whereby the protagonist discovers his access and entry into Black liberation. Although the film ostensibly traces a line of flight out of the university, I want to emphasize the negative dialectic that nonetheless structures its relation to the knowledge that must be learned in order to be overcome. The scenes of dormitory study are of paramount importance here. In some ways the product of just such university study, Gerima's film constitutes one of the promising early works of the Black filmmakers known collectively as the L.A. Rebellion, an imprecise label that gathers together an extraordinarily diverse group of Black filmmakers at the UCLA film school from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. UCLA recruited these filmmakers under the auspices of a special program called the Media Urban Crisis (MUC) designed to address the inequality in higher education, a fact made all the more urgent by the conflagration in Watts in 1965.2 From its inception, MUC's "ethno-communications" program was designed to redress the university's lack of diversity and to serve as a means of contact and connection to the underserved communities outside of the university. While Gerima's film clearly registers his frustration with the political and cultural climate on the UCLA campus, the film also demonstrates how deftly he had taken command of the formal tools by which to portray that alienation.3 At the end of Hour Glass, the student athlete enters a door into a room completely dark and shot from the inside, as the film cuts to black. That space becomes the diegetic analogue to the movie theater itself, a black box for the production and reception of politically radicalized cinema. If the protagonist leaves the university, the film nonetheless returns to the generative space of cinema that Gerima found there.

The capacity of Hour Glass to think with and against the institution offers evidence of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have called the "fugitive planning" of the undercommons. It has become commonplace, they acknowledge, to worry about the fate of the university, "[b]ut for the subversive intellectual, all of this goes on upstairs, in polite company, among the rational men." They continue:

After all, the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow maroon community of the university, into the undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.4

For Harney and Moten, the concept of the "undercommons" names a phenomenon of study, resistance, and subversion that has always been part of the history of the dispossessed. While the locus of their engagement is the modern research university in general, my own intervention seeks to capture something more historically precise about the spirit of Black liberation as it trafficked in and out of the public university in the 1960s and 70s, and as it thought both with and against the institutions of higher learning.

At the tail-end of the Sixties when the liberalization of public education enshrined in the state of California in 1960 as the Master Plan for Higher Education promised equal access to a "multi-racial, worker-inclusive majority," it catalyzed a conservative attack on public education under the name of Reaganism that has largely continued unabated to the present.5 On the one hand, given that Black liberation had, by the late Sixties, joined communism as the dangerous idea par excellence for the liberal consensus, its appearance within the university and the commitment to protect its study under the conventions of academic freedom signaled a promissory enlargement of the public university's mission. Although UC President Clark Kerr's record on protecting political speech on campus was mixed at best, he had it right when he intoned that the "University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas."6 On the other hand, Black liberation became the wedge Ronald Reagan drove between the taxpayers and the public university. While dogwhistling to the racist instincts of anxious white homeowners in the wake of the urban rebellion in Watts, Reagan inaugurated one of the most successful and improbable political careers in recent history by depicting the University of California as a laboratory of radicalism, social unrest and Black nationalism. One of his first orders of business upon assuming the governorship was to fire Kerr.

Just as time ticks down in Gerima's Hour Glass, this conjunctural moment when the Black radical tradition comes into the public university under the aegis of academic freedom, and the Right wing vilifies that same gesture as the dire threat to academic freedom, not only marks the beginning of the end of California's great experiment in public higher education or at least its long evisceration by the market logic of neoliberal privatization but also marks the beginning of the modern university "undercommons" that Harney and Moten locate beneath the professionalization and privatization of higher learning. The conjoined fates of the waning public university and the waxing penal institutions in California can first be read in Reagan's desire to criminalize free speech and turn taxpayers against public education. In what follows I will take up this debate over the meaning of academic freedom as it pertains to the place of Black liberation in the university not simply to track its "fugitive" passage into the undercommons, but also to preserve that prior moment when the political risk of liberalism's expansion, via the incorporation of Black radicalism into the public university, also promised the fullest realization of its social compact and vision. Harney and Moten roundly condemn what they call the "negligence" of the professoriat for the neoliberalization of the university, but this story too neatly consigns the radical potential of public university under the prefix that now regularly affronts liberalism as though it were the cynical sign of a fait accompli, the historical determinism of our reactionary present. The neoliberal university was not the necessary outgrowth of liberalism, but the product of a concerted conservative redirection of the public interest against its own university through the logic of privatization.

But neither is the point here to rehabilitate an uncritical nostalgia for the heyday of the university as a bastion of liberalism. Roderick A. Ferguson has demonstrated powerfully in The Reorder of Things how the minority social movements of the sixties got incorporated into the disciplinary regimes of state, capital and academy as the politically domesticated category of multicultural difference. He writes, "The golden years of academic transformation, state reform, and capitalist expansion were shaped by this mode of power ... the very middle classes produced within this time of change were implicated in that drama."7 The broad contours of this critique are correct, and yet Ferguson's study is bound by some of that same Foucauldian fatalism portended by its title: his success in demonstrating how radical minority politics gets increasingly transformed into a disciplinary positivity of institutional control and management has a certain winner-loses logic; the terms of that "implication" by power remain too indefinitely generalizable for the granular historical terms of the struggle that interest me here.8

The tradition of Black radicalism is precisely what had to be driven underground because it could not be assimilated into the corporate university to come. The employment case of Angela Davis in the philosophy department in 1969 and the extraordinary cultural production of the L.A Rebellion filmmakers across campus at UCLA reveal a pitched battle to enlarge the commons of the public university against the forces of its right-wing retrenchment. The Black radicalism of both philosopher and filmmakers looks very different from the multiculturalism shortly to be institutionalized in the neoliberal university: the vision of both testify to the fact that the "underground of the university" remains the site of what is at once subversive of and promissory in the mission of the public university, its deconstructive danger and its utopian prospect. My essay seeks to recover the tradition of Black liberation within the public university from its imminent privatization as identity politics. The undercommons keeps faith with the radically egalitarian mission of public higher education at the very moment it is driven underground.

Angela Davis, Black Liberation and the Fate of the Public University

I myself was only 25 years old when I had to confront Ronald Reagan over the issue of my right as a communist to teach at UCLA.  Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom9

The story of Angela Davis's rise to fame on the FBI's Most Wanted list, underground and hiding from U.S. law enforcement authorities, and then as international cause célèbre during the course of her trial, is well known. She begins her Autobiography (1974) in medias res, on the run under cover of darkness in a manner that deliberately recalls the fugitive escapes of nineteenth century slave narratives. Less well-known perhaps is the story of how Davis teaching those same slave narratives as a philosophy professor at UCLA only a year prior to the warrant for her arrest found herself at the center of a battle over the meaning and future of the public university. Less sensational than the iconic events that followed, the appointment and termination of Davis's employment at UCLA nonetheless reveal the extent to which Ronald Reagan and the Regents of the University engaged in a concerted effort to force the ideas of Black liberation underground well before Davis was compelled to take physical flight. "As time went by," Davis writes, "it became clear that the assault on my job was only a tiny part of a systematic plan to disarm and destroy the Black liberation struggle and the entire radical movement. The fight for my job had to be interwoven with a larger fight for the survival of the movement."10 When Davis entered the classroom in the fall of 1969 to teach her first course entitled "Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature," her lectures not only constituted an historical description of that struggle for freedom, but also its very enactment in the practice of her pedagogy under extraordinary surveillance and pressure from the right-wing apparatuses of the state. The fight over Davis's employment illuminates the broader ambition of Reagan and the Regents to constrain and limit the definition of academic freedom as a means to criminalize Black radical dissent while simultaneously restricting the function of the public university. The undercommons might be said to (dis)appear at the very moment when Davis's right to, and demonstration of, protected academic speech is hypocritically perverted by the New Right into evidence of the threat to academic freedom.

Not two months after Davis received the initial offer for a one-year renewable position in the philosophy department in March of 1969, and before she had even entered the classroom, a covert operative employed by the FBI to monitor the burgeoning student movement on campus wrote a letter to the Daily Bruin declaring that the department had hired a well-known communist. Reporter Ed Montgomery picked up the story for the San Francisco Examiner and named Davis (inaccurately) as a "known Maoist" active in SDS and the Black Panther Party. By July, the Regents were ready to invoke an outdated 1949 rule against the employment of communists to prohibit Davis from entering the classroom. Although the Regents knew that they were on shaky constitutional ground and in danger of contravening their own Standing Order 102.1 that "No political test shall ever be considered in the appointment and promotion of any faculty member or employee," they viewed the threat and it must be observed political opportunity occasioned by Davis's hiring as credible enough to risk both litigation and the outrage of the faculty at their intervention in the departmental hiring process. The Regents directed UCLA Vice Chancellor David S. Saxon to send Davis a letter inquiring directly into her political background. Rather than invoking the 5th Amendment in the familiarly dark legacy of Cold War anti-communist hysteria, Davis declared her affiliation in full confidence of her legal standing:

[My] answer is that I am now a member of the Communist Party. While I think this membership requires no justification here, I want you to know that as a black woman I feel an urgent need to find radical solutions to the problems of racial and national minorities in white capitalist United States ... It goes without saying, of course, that the advocacy of the Communist Party during my period of membership in it has, to my knowledge, fallen well within the guarantees of the First Amendment. Nor does my membership in the Communist Party involve me in any commitment to principle or position governing either my scholarship or my responsibilities as a teacher.11

By September, against the vociferous opposition of students, faculty and the advice of UCLA Chancellor Young, the Board of Regents moved to terminate Davis's employment and revoke credit for her course just as it was to commence. Davis appealed the decision within the university through a hearing with the Committee on Privilege and Tenure and then externally through a lawsuit initiated by several members of the UCLA faculty within the Superior Court of Los Angeles attacking the constitutionality of the Regents's decision (Karst v. Regents).12 Davis's class was permitted to go forward pending the legal appeal of the case, but she taught this first course under extraordinary duress: the ongoing obstructionism of the Regents, intense media scrutiny surrounding the case, virulent anti-communist hate mail and death threats, and the constant presence of the F.B.I. within her classroom.13

Angela Davis's inaugural lecture for the course was delivered in Royce Hall to an audience of over fifteen hundred students and colleagues, and she concluded her opening remarks to a standing ovation. Although her lecture notes from that fall were eventually published as a pamphlet in 1971 entitled Lectures on Liberation by the N.Y. Committee to Free Angela Davis, they had been previously collected and meticulously examined by the Ad Hoc Committee tasked with reviewing her employment case.14 One might be struck by the careful labor evinced by Davis's typed lecture notes, for she realized that counter-subversive agents would pour over them with McCarthyite fervor. All the more remarkable in light of this context, then, is the fact that the subject matter of Davis's course is the philosophical concept of freedom as it has been articulated within the context of the struggle for Black liberation. Beginning with Frederick Douglass's Narrative and ending with Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, Davis develops an itinerary for the concept of freedom as one that is non-identical with itself, as demonstrated by the history of Black oppression:

The history of Black Literature provides, in my opinion, a much more illuminating account of the nature of freedom, its extent and limits, than all the philosophical discourses on this theme in the history of western society. Why? For a number of reasons. First of all, because Black Lit. in this country and throughout the world projects a consciousness of a people who have consistently been denied entrance into the real world of freedom. Black people have exposed, by their very existence, the inadequacies not only of the practice of freedom, but of its very formulation. Because, if the theory of freedom remains isolated from the practice of freedom or rather is contradicted in reality, then this means that something must be wrong with the concept that is, if we are thinking in a dialectical manner. 15

Fredrick Douglass's understanding of freedom derives from a negation of negation, that is, from resistance to the social death of slavery. Davis's inaugural lecture begins by deconstructing the putative universalism of the concept: with perhaps a hint of her former teacher Theodor Adorno's syntactical détournment, she asserts that "the slave is acutely conscious of the fact that freedom is not a fact, it is not a given, but rather something to be fought for, it can exist only through a process of struggle."16

"Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature" charts this struggle for freedom not only away from the false universal of Enlightenment liberalism but also toward the collective struggle of what Cedric Robinson would later identify as Black Marxism. Of course, Davis couldn't name this tradition outright given the surveillance of her course, but her survey of predominantly male Black writers from Douglass through W.E.B. DuBois, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, John A. Williams, and Frantz Fanon a lecture on Ann Petry and Beah Richards constitutes the sole instance of Black women's writing on the syllabus nonetheless limns this tradition through Davis's critique of the way these writers' experience of racist reification elicit reductive forms of alienated individual response. Indeed, while Davis later expressed regret for the over-representation of men on the syllabus, her own Marxist-inflected readings of these texts' political limits offer at least a tacit gender critique of their masculinist suppositions about freedom, agency and authenticity. In Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, the final text of her chronologically organized course, racial oppression is tied repeatedly to the prospects and possibilities of collective action in the face of colonial oppression:

We have encountered aesthetic, psychological and even political attempts at emancipation; we have also seen ways in which these attempts have served as escape paths in the opposite direction of freedom. Now we are embarking on a different era the era of the transformation of the search for freedom into the demand for collective liberation.17

This turn signaled not only the internationalist reorientation of the course, but also its direct, if coded, address to the immediate context of Davis's own activist involvement in the Black liberation struggle. Lecturing on Fanon's philosophical defense of violence against the colonialist oppressor, Davis could not but more importantly, did not need to make the analogical link explicit. Fanon offered the final dialectical turn in the argument running through Davis's course: in his recognition that colonial oppression was a totality involving all the institutions and apparatuses of the state, Fanon advocated armed collective resistance. As Davis glosses him, "Colonialism is not just racism, not just economic exploitation, not just oppression by the military; it is rather the totality of the forces that make these things possible."18 In this state of affairs, the good liberal subject was necessarily on the side of state violence.

Angela Davis lecturing in Royce Hall (1969)

Through Fanon's text, then, like a kind of radical ventriloquism, Davis signifies upon the colonialist positioning of Black America in relation to the United States, the occupied territory of inner cities like Watts, and the putative neutrality of liberal institutions of higher learning like the University of California. In the copy of the lecture notes I obtained from the Ad Hoc Committee's confidential file, concerned annotations begin to appear in the margin at the moment when Davis asserts that "the mistake the liberals continue to make is to equate counter-violence with the violence used by the oppressor."19 Here, the veil over her political advocacy is perhaps at its thinnest. As both the investigating committee and the students were no doubt aware, the Black Power movement had drawn repeatedly upon the idioms of the anti-colonial discourse because, as Nikhil Singh explains, "it suggested a practical deconstruction of the pretensions of nationality and state power (policing, waging war, schooling, diplomacy, and so on) and the ideological and cultural production of black people as an outside that was also inside the nation."20 Drawn to scale, Singh's spatial trope for this double (dis)location registers Davis's own precarious positioning within and without the university. In her public speeches Davis would be more explicit about the role of the university in the construction of what her former teacher Herbert Marcuse called the welfare-warfare state, but these lectures instantiate the "fugitive" space she both constructs and inhabits in the undercommons: "To enter this space is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts.21 Invited into the university, but terminated in advance, Davis's course is the historical scene of such a rupture.

The lesson that freedom requires the performative enactment of resistance entailed a situational irony presumably not lost on many of the hundreds of students who overflowed the room to hear Davis's lecture. Her notes make clear that the fight to protect her right to teach isn't in the inevitable pun merely academic: her meta-critical splitting of the universal concept of freedom from the concrete material struggle for it (via Douglass's text) strikes at the heart of Reagan's own presumptive agenda to reify freedom as the name for the moral logic of consumer capitalism. This program extended directly to academic freedom, the campaign issue with which he'd had so much success with voters. He put the matter bluntly during his 1966 gubernatorial campaign,: "Those who pay for the education, students and taxpayers, also have a definition of academic freedom: their freedom to have some say in what they get for their money." 22 Like his vilification of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, Reagan's truly radical interpretation of academic freedom revealed not only his willingness to use the public university as a symbolic instrument in the Gramscian "war of position" he waged against liberals and leftists alike, but also his broader ambition to privatize its social function. In Unmaking of the Public University (2008), Christopher Newfield diagnoses the attack by the New Right on what he calls:

[T]he institution where blue- and white-collar children of both workers and managers, citizens of every racial background were invited into a unified majority ... The specter of this multiracial, worker-inclusive majority formed not exclusively through higher education motivated twenty-five years of conservative attacks on the university and its emerging, inclusive, hybrid middle class.23

As Gary K. Claybaugh documents, Reagan set the tone for this agenda from the outset of his governorship, "calling for the end of free tuition for state college and university students"; "demanding 20 percent across-the-board cuts in higher education funding"; "repeatedly slashing construction funds for state campuses"; "engineering the firing of Clark Kerr, the highly respected president of the University of California"; and "declaring that the state 'should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.'"24

If Reagan's attacks on the promise enshrined by the Master Plan for Higher Education to extend social equality in the state were highly calculated, he nonetheless seemed unaware of how his own narrow definition of academic freedom exposed him to the very charge of ideological indoctrination he leveled at putatively left-wing faculty members. The meaning of academic freedom for Reagan couldn't be clearer:

[T]he educator is wrong who denies there are any absoluteswho sees no black and white of right or wrong, but just shades of gray in a world where discipline of any kind is an intolerable interference with the right of the individual. He rebels at the old-fashioned idea of "loco parentis" and claims he is there to impart knowledge, not to substitute for absentee parents. But he cannot escape a responsibility for the students' development of character and maturity.

Strangely and illogically, this is very often the same educator who interprets his academic freedom as the right to indoctrinate students with his view of things. Woe to the student who challenges his interpretation of history, or who questions the economic theory given as proven formula in what is, at best, a very inexact science.25

Mistaking his own "interpretation of history" for the moral absolutism of the free market, Reagan would thus indoctrinate all faculty members into the privatized university with its mission to educate the student-consumer.26 Woe, in turn, to the professor who questions her conscription into this patriarchal ethos of the State imagined here as the nuclear family. Reagan's peroration on academic freedom confidently declares that higher education has always been in the service of his own ethno-nationalist worldview: "These institutions were created, and are presently maintained, to insure the perpetuation of a social structure a nation, if you will."27

Reagan was, of course, eager to play symbolic politics with the mere fact of a Black communist educator at the public university, but the definition of freedom in Davis's lecture now stands more starkly in relief for its substantial threat to the Right wing agenda to delimit the meaning of academic discourse, and by extension the future meaning of public education. The negative dialectic of freedom that Davis traces through the philosophical tradition of Black liberation thus resists the assimilative interests of the State, as represented by the Reaganite agenda. The point is not to analogize irresponsibly from Douglass's experience to Davis's own, but to maintain a line of inquiry that extends the Black interrogation of freedom while avoiding its academic reification; Davis addresses this danger to Black Studies explicitly near the beginning of her second lecture:

[W]e must be very careful, because we do not want Black History, Black Literature, to be relegated to the same stagnant, innocuous, compartmentalized existence of say, the history of the American Revolution [...] The reasons underlying the demands for Black Studies Programs are many, but the most important is the necessity to establish a continuum from the past to the present, to discover the genesis of problems which continue to exist today, to discover how our ancestors dealt with them.28

The ongoing struggle within and for the history of Black Study is exactly what maintains the critical vitality of freedom against the motivated co-optation of its meaning by the burgeoning neoliberal model of higher education.

Davis herself would object, and did, to the attribution of any outsized significance to her employment case except as it pertained to the larger Black liberation struggle against oppression beyond the university. Academic freedom mattered to Davis only to the degree that, as she put it in a 1969 speech at Berkeley, "we connect it with social and practical freedoms the real basis of academic freedom in this country." Although this interpretation would prove scandalous to the Ad Hoc Committee and the AAUP review of her employment case, the foregoing discussion should make clear the degree to which a radical activist view of academic freedom was widely held by Reagan and the Regents on the Right. That Davis would shortly end up a prisoner herself and standing trial before the State for her life instead of simply for her job attests to the array of social forces acting upon her situation far beyond the public pronouncements of a visiting assistant professor. For her part Davis was keen to exploit the coverage of her case to advocate on behalf of the Soledad Brothers and other prisoners of the Black liberation struggle.29 Academic freedom mattered only to the degree that it could be used to affect the cause of social justice in the wider world. Davis's lectures on Fanon would contribute to the broader reframing of the Black liberation struggle in internationalist terms. Against liberal bromides about the plight of the urban poor and exceptionalist Cold War rhetoric about American freedom proffered by Reagan and the New Right, the redescription of Black criminals as political prisoners in the fight against the internal colonization of the Black community linked those local struggles to the struggle for political liberation on a global scale. In undoing the false universalism of American freedom, the study of Black liberation could point the way toward the critical reinterpretation of the concept.

In her final lecture on Fanon and colonialist violence, Davis draws upon the illuminating example offered by Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). The film supplies evidence for why Fanon and by extension, Davis cannot accept the good liberal defense of non-violence in the face of colonialist oppression. In the film, Mathieu, the officer in command of the French forces, offers a blunt explanation of the means-ends calculus that justifies torture. To believe that Algeria is a part of France by any means necessary is to become a co-signatory to that violence. Referring to Fanon's essay on torture in Toward the African Revolution, Davis writes, "Fanon does no more than reiterate the implicit posture taken by Mathieu: 'Every Frenchman in Algeria must behave like a torturer.'"30 Although Davis's philosophical defense of counter-violence does not concern itself directly with the formal aspects of the film, it is nonetheless striking that she draws upon the power of cinema for her image of collective action against state oppression: the famous "choral subject" of Pontecorvo's film provides the final dialectical turn in Davis's semester-long trajectory of freedom from alienated individualism to collective struggle.

At the point at which both Fanon and the film argue for "decolonizing the personal," Davis also pivots toward what will become one of the abiding concerns of her career-long intersectional practice: gender and sexuality. As she notes of the film, "The most obvious example of the interconnectedness of psychological and political liberation can be seen in the transformation of the Algerian woman during the revolutionary struggle."31 Two years later, Davis would pen one of the first important historical revisions of Black women's vital role in the resistance to slavery during her own imprisonment, but already her nascent radical Black feminism is apparent in her treatment of the film's communal struggle. The liberation of Algerian women was crucial for Davis because "it occurred precisely within the context of new realizations, new methods of struggle and the envisaging of a new kind of human being."32 The Fanonian "new Man" cleansed by revolutionary violence hasn't disappeared entirely from Davis's notes, but he is also caught up in the dialectical movement that already anticipates his own transformation as well. If cinema promises to be one of the radical sites for imagining what Jacques Rancière has called the "redistribution of the sensible," Pontecorvo's film provides Davis with the perceptual link between gender equality, the Black liberation struggle, and the Third World anti-colonial movements in other words, the common ground of the undercommons.

Fugitive Filmmaking and the Public University

"We must return to the notion of the hiatus, the break between the noble moral ideas of western society in general and in particular, the gap which exists between the slaveholder's principles and his day-to-day existence," Davis says at one point in her lecture on Frederick Douglass.33 Across campus in the film school, and concurrent with Davis's struggle against the Regents, students of color were also thinking in "the break" about how the advancement of Black liberation might be achieved by the emancipation of the image.34 For example, Fanon's writings were taught in the classes of Elyseo Taylor, the first Black faculty member of UCLA's film school, and in those of Teshome Gabriel, the Third World film theorist who began his career as a graduate student at UCLA and then succeeded Taylor in the instruction of the influential course "Film and Social Change." Fanon was taught as the "inspirational guide for Third Cinema," which would not only undo the hegemony of Hollywood image production but also serve in the struggle of global anti-colonial liberation movements.35 The recruitment of these faculty members, as well as the extraordinary group of student filmmakers subsequently dubbed the "L.A. Rebellion" by Clyde Taylor, was the result of university-wide initiatives led by African-American administrator Assistant Vice Chancellor Charles Z. Wilson to consider issues of "Student Entry, Curricular Development, and Urban Involvement." Catalyzed by the need to redress inequality in higher education and minority recruitment, as well as by the university's broader response to the contemporary urban crisis, the short-lived Ethno-Communications Program may be viewed retrospectively as evidence of both the success and the promise of Master Plan for Higher Education, just as it meets Right-wing resistance critical thinking, as it were, "in the break" of the public university.36 As Vice Chancellor Wilson would ruefully recall, "'Expediting creative responses to legitimate issues that poor and disadvantaged minority students had raised' faced major opposition from 'conservative' forces some administrators, regents, Governor Ronald Reagan such that 'funding for the urban crisis agenda of the president never fully got off the ground.'"37 As in Davis's philosophy department, Black study in the film school was marked with the fugitivity of the underground just as the mission to expand access was getting underway.38

The continuity of struggle that Davis traces from Frederick Douglass to Fanon, Pontecorvo, and the present becomes quite literally perceptible in the material practice of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers to open up a new cultural front in the fight for Black liberation. "The most powerful gain to be drawn from this work," as film critic Clyde Taylor summarizes, "remains the spectacle of Black people in full flight as beings-for-themselves instead of fantasy-beings-for-others."39 Although the formal strategies and stylistic signatures of these filmmakers vary widely, from the impressionistic and elliptical montages of Gerima to the lyrical séances of cultural memory in the work of Julie Dash, and from the jazz fracturings of Larry Clark to the neo-realism of Charles Burnett, all stemmed from what film theorist Allyson Nadia Field calls the atmosphere of "rebellious unlearning" at UCLA, a phrase resonant with the practice of the undercommons.

Against the prohibitive and racialized framing of Hollywood history, the filmic image would be reclaimed for Black subjects and Black point of view, in particular that of the Black community of Watts that not only resided in the penumbral shadows of Hollywood but was the product of restrictive housing policies and white flight, structural racism in employment and the criminalization of the inner city. "In Watts," Cynthia Young observes, "residents experienced the kind of extreme poverty, discrimination, and violent policing that provoked comparison with Third World colonized peoples. For the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Watts provided an important backdrop for exploring the various contradictions at the heart of U.S. democracy."40 As in Davis's course on Fanon, the lessons of Third Cinema as an ideological weapon in the fight against imperialism on view in Teshome Gabriel's course in 1969, for which Charles Burnett served as the first teaching assistant thus offered an extraordinarily fertile analogy for the conditions of violent oppression that these filmmakers sought to document and contest in the local community.41 "Corresponding to Frantz Fanon's third phase [emancipatory combat through violence]," Gabriel writes, "the call in this last stage of the evolution of cinema is for a 'guerrilla cinema'" (7) the camera would be weaponized in the service of liberation.

Given the popular outcry over Angela Davis's employment case, which was fanned by Reagan's own sense of political opportunism, it isn't surprising that Davis inspired many L.A. Rebellion films. Beyond Davis's flashing appearance in Hour Glass, Gerima's Child of Resistance (1972) was directly inspired by seeing Davis handcuffed on television. Larry Clark's Tamu (1970) features a young Black woman ruminating on Davis and the revolutionary struggle, and Clark's As Above, So Below (1973) also makes oblique reference to Davis as the film imagines the organization of a revolutionary Black underground in the wake of Watts. No doubt these films demand a study in their own right, as do so many other aspects of the rich L.A. Rebellion archive. My interest here focuses more on the critical conjuncture of these teaching scenes across campus, or what Field has aptly termed "UCLA's Third Worldism." 42 In Gabriel's courses, students were taught, in Field's words, "to align their work with global anti-imperialist fights, while also using it to inform an approach to domestic concerns, with local issues presented as part of a larger international struggle against systemic oppression" (277). These are the very linkages that Davis sought to delineate for her students through the dialectical enlargement of freedom toward its anti-colonial (or Fanonian) dimension.

Haile Gerima's thesis film Bush Mama (1975) is one of the better-known, if not canonical films, of the L.A. Rebellion corpus, but it warrants renewed attention here for the way it both thematizes and formalizes the radical pedagogy of the public university undercommons.43 While Davis used the platform of the liberal university classroom to engage in an immanent critique of liberalism's complicity with racism and colonialism at home and abroad, Gerima utilized the resources and production facilities of the film school in Bush Mama to represent the violent effects of welfare-warfare liberalism upon the inner-city Black community. Indeed, the opening of Gerima's film might be said to constitute something like a paradigmatic case of the quotidian violence visited upon the Black life by the State as well as a practical and theoretical demonstration of the camera's power to fight back in the name of the community under siege.

The film opens to two layered soundtracks: the rotor blades of a helicopter, ubiquitous in Los Angeles law enforcement but also reminiscent of the Hueys used in Vietnam for troop transport; and a monotone female voice reading a welfare office questionnaire for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) eligibility. For all their apparent dissonance, the sounds bespeak the systemic coordination of martial authority and biopolitical management of Black life by the State. The crescendo of a siren seems to register a state of emergency but this impression is immediately reframed by the first visual scene after the title sequence: a jerky hand-held view in slow-motion of the arrival of the police to arrest several Black men who've been pulled over in a traffic stop. The voice of the welfare officer now merges with that of the police radio dispatcher. The film is a perfect demonstration of Marcuse's welfare-warfare thesis: "as [it] progresses," Mike Murashige writes, "it becomes increasingly hard for the viewer to differentiate state-sponsored terrorism and state control where remedies for social problems become indistinguishable from the controlling and policing of the crisis."44

But the extra-diegetic circumstances of this opening render its effect all the more extraordinary for the way it registers the absolutely ordinary or normative visitation of state violence upon Black life: the men being arrested in the shot are, in fact, Gerima's own film crew. As they were unpacking and setting up their equipment for the day's shoot, the crew suddenly found itself being searched and interrogated by the LAPD. Its arrest documented by the camera, the production of Gerima's film becomes indistinguishable from its subject circumstantial cinéma vérité. Murashige has reasonably criticized how the scholarly overemphasis on this anecdote has shortchanged the rich representational dynamics at work in the film as a whole, but, as Daniel Widener correctly points out, "the story of the LAPD's interference with Gerima's film is important, both because it reflects the continuing problem of a police force bent on behaving as an army of occupation and because it reflects a long history of police interference in the affairs of black artists."45 Beyond the scene's power as de facto evidence of the very surveillance of Black life the film seeks to represent, I want to emphasize the significance of this encounter as the formal enactment of the L.A. Rebellion's homegrown Third Cinema.

Still from Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1979)

In the scholarly monograph that evolved out of his teaching at UCLA, Third Cinema in the Third World (1982), Teshome Gabriel draws upon the Althusserian concept of "interpellation" to describe how the camera acts as an ideological instrument that slots its viewers into a politically constructed point of view. As in Angela Davis's course across campus, however, Fanon supplies the properly dialectical turn that makes ideology critique into an instrument of anti-colonial liberation. Althusser's ideological criticism shifts radically when point of view is considered in light of Fanon's conceptualization; the theoretical terms of ideology critique need to speak directly to what Gabriel calls "Third World experience." For Gabriel, as for Fanon, it is "the people who give substance to the gaze."46 And for the generation of Gabriel's radicalized students of color who had begun to think of themselves as internally colonized people, interpellation named a far more dynamic process in which the camera might reverse the terms of the exchange between subject and object. Although Gabriel doesn't mention it, the camera's interpellation of the viewer already constitutes a form of counter-violence within the logic of Althusser's famous example of the representative of the law shouting "hey, you there!" and thus inserting the hailed subject who turns in response to the discursive order of the State. Gerima's opening scene keeps this prehistory of violence alive in the movement between form and content here: if the police within the scene hail his crew as criminalized Black men, the camera nonetheless reframes the police as the representatives of an oppressive colonial government.

In a useful complication of Althusser's theory of ideological formation, Jacques Rancière has suggested that the primary function of the police is not interpellation at all but rather breaking up social demonstrations. Far from "Hey, you there!," Rancière insists, the principle speech act of the law is the imperative to "Move along! There's nothing to see here!" "The police is that which says that here, on this street, there's nothing to see and so nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation." On this view, the police stop Gerima's crew not to rehearse a scene of proper ideological subject formation but rather to keep the men moving, because their loitering represents a suspicious clotting of the "space of circulation." Politics for Rancière becomes a matter of visibility, of making oneself seen: "Politics [...] consists in transforming this space of 'moving-along,' of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens. It consists in re-figuring space, that is in what is to be done, to be seen and to be named in it."47 Gerima's scene thus disrupts the smooth circulatory traffic of the street by drawing attention to those who have refused to move along. The film crew is there to capture a different spatial practice on the street, but by their very presence there against the flow of traffic they end up enacting that practice. Documented by Gerima's handheld camera, they produce what Rancière calls a different "distribution of the sensible."

What is formally striking about opening of Bush Mama as a kind of prolegomenon for L.A. Rebellion filmmaking at large is the way that it redresses the limits of Althusser and Ranciere's theories of how ideology organizes public space in Black life and synthesizes them together. In inner city Los Angeles, Black life is subject to both interpellation and invisibility. It is not a question of emphasizing either subjection in the name of the Law or surveillance in the name of smooth circulation. In her recent study of the surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne renovates the term "sousveillance" to name the appropriation of technologies for watching and monitoring populations, an inversion of power relations, as it were, from below. The eye of power becomes the object rather than the subject of the gaze. We might think of the opening of Bush Mama as an act of "dark sousveillance" which calls implicitly for a cinema that answers, in Browne's words, "Toni Cade Bambara's call for emancipatory texts to 'heal our imperialized eyes' as well as bell hooks's naming of the interrogating, 'oppositional gaze.'"48 The gaze from below ("sous- ") turns the camera into the instrument of the undercommons: film is not only the means to broader representational access, unconstrained by the legacy of Hollywood racism, but also the medium of a radical pedagogy in its own right. Gerima's camera would thus teach and practice for its viewer a kind of fugitive counter-interpellation: the social institutions (the welfare-warfare state for the characters within the film; the university for those making the film) that condition, constrain and, ultimately, criminalize Black life also catalyze a radical point of view from which the revolutionary "redistribution of the sensible" become not only possible but necessary.

As Bush Mama departs from this opening, the camera's movement becomes steadier as it traverses the street with all of its myriad interactions of everyday life, as if looking for the subject it will shortly identify for the audience. A panning shot suddenly fixes upon and introduces the protagonist of the film, Dorothy, played by the frequent L.A. Rebellion actress Barbara O. Jones. The plot of the film is organized around Dorothy's seemingly endless struggles to maintain her family's subsistence and human dignity in the Los Angeles welfare system. Dorothy's dehumanizing treatment anticipates the race-baiting criminalization of the "welfare mother" during the Reaganite eighties, but the film importantly locates these tendencies toward the social control and discipline of the Black population in the benevolent liberalism of Great Society welfare-warfare agencies. Repeated scenes of Dorothy walking to and waiting in AFDC offices, where she learns that no work is available, take on an air of structural inevitability in both formal and thematic terms, even as Gerima intercuts these shots with scenes of Dorothy taking care of her teen daughter, Luann, and dreaming of a shared future with her lover T.C., a Vietnam veteran who cannot find work. The desperate condition of their lives worsens when they receive a double blow: T.C. is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, and Dorothy is strongly pressured by the welfare agency to abort her unborn child if she expects further assistance. But even these brutal mechanisms of state control are preparatory for the film's final climactic horror in which Dorothy returns home to find a policeman raping her daughter; she kills the cop only to be imprisoned herself and beaten so badly that she miscarries. Dorothy has spent the film wearily subjected to the state's disciplinary regimes, as well as to the mixed council of her friends and neighbors about how to deal with such oppression, but these final blows forge her mind into a revolutionary consciousness. She ends the film by removing the wig that (for her) has symbolized her compliance with social norms and stands before the poster of an Angolan revolutionary fighter with a rifle in one hand and her baby in the other. In Gerima's film, as in Davis's and Gabriel's courses, the futurity of the Black liberation struggle at home is tied directly to the postcolonial revolutionary struggles abroad.

Barbara O. Jones in Bush Mama (1979)

The subject matter of Bush Mama thus becomes the thematic analogue of its formal sousveillance. Just as the fugitive style of the film is simultaneously enabled by the liberal expansion of the public university's institutional mandate for more diverse cinema production and directed against its limits, so Dorothy's dependence upon the very welfare programs that would keep her in a state of existential misery finally compels her toward a revolutionary position beyond them at the film's end. And yet the abiding power of Barbara O.'s performance as Dorothy resides in the fact that it cannot be entirely contained by the revolutionary telos so pervasive in radical films of the period. As Dorothy refuses instrumentalization by state apparatuses, so too does Barbara O. resist the camera's power to make her signify as either the passive victim of the state or the agential muse of revolutionary masculinism. Angela Davis has written critically about the unreflective propagation of her own image as a Black nationalist icon, and Bush Mama clearly flirts with the idea that the revolution might be engendered through the visual fetishization of Black female beauty.49 But Gerima's film ultimately runs interference on this reception of Dorothy by trafficking ceaselessly between objective and subjective cinematic styles. Long shots of Dorothy walking the streets, exposed and vulnerable to all the predictable forms of predation, draw attention to the phallic operation of the gaze when counterbalanced by mid- and close-up shots of her looking out with concern upon the same street from her bedroom window. Barbara O's own reciprocal gaze has the power to disengage from the objective world below as if it could fix in the middle distance: a place of private reminiscence and possibility. Dorothy's voice-over and flashbacks to moments of prior happiness draw a stark contrast with the modalities of visual objectification that organize the public spectacle of the street. Bush Mama thus registers how crucial aspects of Dorothy's being escape from the discursive framing of her world, and even perhaps from the film's own designs upon her final revolutionary transformation.

In Murashige's still indispensable reading of the film, Dorothy searches through a set of competing narratives that might "adequately communicate her own sense of dislocation, oppression, and devaluation."50 If the dominant narratives of the state's institutional representatives the group therapy leader, the social worker, the policeman work in tandem to misrepresent her condition, the film supplies a set of counter-narratives of resistance and agency: her lover T.C. gets radicalized in prison and offers a critique of American capitalism and its roots in slavery; a neighborhood youth named Angi situates the contemporary crisis within the context of postcolonial struggles and the rising tide of global resistance; her friend Simmi runs a restaurant downstairs and offers an older generational perspective on the grassroots "calculation and togetherness" of community action. For Murashige, "no single narrative is sufficient to the task of narrating the crisis to Dorothy," which rather requires a synthesis of these multiple perspectives as the assembled resources of the Black community.51 These community resources are necessary in order for Dorothy to see her way to resistance.

As persuasive as this argument is, I wish to offer a different tack on the scenes of T.C.'s imprisonment and subsequent radicalization as counter-interpellation. In my reading, the film enacts its radical pedagogy at the level of form as much as it does for Dorothy at the level of content. Murashige reads T.C.'s three audio-visual "letters" to Dorothy as a process of distancing: as T.C. comes to understand his place as a Black man in the prison-industrial complex, his discourse gets increasingly impersonal and disconnected from her intersectional experience as a Black woman; he goes "from speaking to Dorothy to speaking at her."52 If we think, however, of the letters' addressee as the viewer rather than simply Dorothy herself, the formal orientation of the scene changes significantly far from distanciation, the camera brings us within the process of institutional subjection, through a process of claustrophobic interiorization. In the first letter, Gerima shoots T.C. in mid-level close up through the bars of his prison cell. The intimacy of his mode of address to Dorothy is thus troubled from the outset by the camera's positioning within the corridor space of the prison guard. T.C.'s address begins confidently enough:

You know, I'm studying hard. I been puttin' a lot of broken things in my past together, so I'll have a concrete foundation from where I'm coming. And it is you who will help me to where I'm going. I know how to govern my future when I come out.

But he suddenly catches himself:

I mean if I come out alive. Cuz they'll kill a brother here the moment one starts to see. They don't give a damn if one stays blind, since that is death within itself, and don't pose a threat to a decadent society.

At the word "see," Gerima begins to dolly the camera down the corridor before the other prisoners, as if T.C.'s reference to vision were itself a diegetic direction to the camera. The cognitive dissonance for the viewer only intensifies as this formal movement within the corridor inevitably summons to mind the guard's rounds before each cell. In stark contrast with the putatively transparent access of Hollywood visual storytelling, Gerima's camera calls attention to the complicity of the apparatus: the saccade of the bars of each cell as they reel from right to left split the space into a series of frames that recall the material of film stock itself, and perhaps the history of racist filmic representation that has abetted in the oppression of Black lives. Each prisoner meets the camera's gaze directly so that the viewer is made to confront the ideological positioning of their own viewing. When the camera dollies more rapidly back across the range of faces toward T.C.'s cell at the end of his monologue, Gerima suddenly jumps to a close-up shot of Dorothy through the bars of her bed, thus drawing a formal analogy to her own domestic imprisonment.

By the second letter, the camera has moved inside T.C.'s cell to share in the close space of his confinement. The cramped angle paradoxically registers our own formal movement into the space of institutional confinement from our prior positioning out in the corridor. Murashige reads the continual low-angle shot as a literalization of T.C.'s talking down to Dorothy, but his words suggest a far more dialogic relationship between them in which their words in each other's ears are the only solace:

But what really hits me, baby, is your point about tenderness. You know, I thought about it for a while, and baby, I really love you for it. I mean, who could ever believe your knowledge of this world? But I tell you I learned a lot from that point of view. You know, when it is night and there is silence except for the random snoring of the brothers in the distance, I can hear you whispering in my ears, saying to me, despite everything, "Don't lose your tenderness, T.C., for without your tenderness you're useless to me or to anyone else for that matter." Well said, baby. And I can hear you well in my ears.

The discordance between the message about "tenderness" and the harsh urgency of its delivery is the point: the chauvinism that Murashige reads into T.C.'s monologues should be attributed more directly to the process of penalization itself. "Tenderness" is precisely what incarceration threatens to kill.53 "Here in the joint," T.C. contends, "people take me for serious all the time. And every time I crack a joke to test if that part of me is still alive, just never can make it." In this reading, the two abrupt cuts to straight-on mid-level shots of him behind bars (as well as safety glass) serve to emphasize his institutional subjection to the authority of the state rather than, as Murashige would have it, his diminished "authority" over Dorothy. Once again Gerima draws our attention as much to the ambivalent ideology of the filmic apparatus itself as he does to that his incarcerated character. T.C.'s monologue about tenderness ends with a final jump to Dorothy's face also filmed low-angle while his voice-over audio continues reciprocally in her ear. Their intimacy remains alive in spite of the brutality of its enforced separation by the state.

By the third and final letter, Gerima emphasizes the cellular isolation of both T.C. and Dorothy through the static positioning of their bodies in the frame. Now turned away from their former eye-level address to the camera, T.C. lies on his prison cot reading Langston Hughes, while Dorothy lies across her bed with her face averted from the camera. She is, however, looking directly at the poster of the Angolan revolutionary as T.C.'s voice-over acknowledges the growing distance between them: "Yeh, I know you that say I've changed and all that. But let's look back. They built their major wealth off our backs and the wealth from Africa. This is the truth, baby." If T.C.'s words turn increasingly toward institutional critique, rather than to the intimacy between them, her own line of sight also seems inclined toward this enlarged social vision. Gerima continues to layer T.C.'s condemnation of the exploitation of Black labor (notably the music industry's theft of Billy Holiday) over shots of Dorothy cleaning her apartment. Even the head kerchief Dorothy wears as she cleans replacing the oppressive wig is reminiscent of the woman in the poster, who tracks her movement about the room with her eyes, a subtle sign of Dorothy's evolving perspective. Murashige suggests that T.C.'s disembodied words now register the intersectional limitations of his critique to account for Dorothy's experience. I prefer instead to hear in the persistence of T.C.'s voice-over evidence of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls the "fractured collectivities" produced by the growing political economy of prisons, especially in California during this period.54) Dorothy's domestic work is thereby linked to the exploitation of Black labor T.C. describes, and demonstrates further how the social reproduction of the Black community outside of the prison is directly tied to the devastating effects of the prison-industrial complex on those inside.

My point is not simply that the film narrates this history of the double disciplining of gendered Black bodies by the welfare system and the prison-industrial complex. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward clearly articulated these social connections roughly contemporaneously with the film's production.55 Only with this "radical historicization," in Gabriel's terms, can the film prepare the ground for the "rebellious unlearning" that will revolutionize form, content, and reception.56 As Gabriel emphasized in his classroom as well as his text on Third Cinema, the audience needs to be presented "with a rational interpretation of a historically defined reality so that a line of causation can be established which they can use to understand and change their condition."57 We might identify through Gabriel's words the meta-discursive context at once thematized and formalized in this "student film," a teaching scene that yokes two liberal institutions together while undoing their hermetic isolation the UCLA classroom and the California prison. Gerima suggests that T.C.'s disembodied critique is now a part of Dorothy's own laboring and learning, if her path to knowledge is necessarily distinct from T.C.'s. The penal institution enforces the distance between them, but Gerima's film asserts that radical pedagogy is the formal and thematic link that binds Dorothy, T.C. and the audience together in a shared future. Just as Angela Davis had been keen to emphasize for her students the ways in which freedom was not a fixed concept, Tashome Gabriel made the case for his students that the camera was not the objective recording device of an inert social reality, but rather a mediating device with which the resources of Black life might point the way toward a radical re-visioning of social possibility.

T.C.'s increasing anger is a structural effect of his experience in prison, but Dorothy struggles to understand him across this distance rather than being alienated from their relationship. Gerima ends the film with a final letter written by Dorothy addressing T.C., her own voice now reversing the gendered terms of the prior audio correspondence but nonetheless still in earnest dialogue with T.C.

I can see now that my problem is the place I was born into. A place with laws that protect the people who got money, doctors and hospitals for people who got money, it's evil and wrong. I have to get to know myself. To read and to study. We all have to, so we can change it. So we can know how to talk to each other. Talking to each other is not easy. I know you're in jail, T.C. and angry. But most of the time I don't understand your letters. Talk to me easy, T.C., cuz I want to understand. It's not easy to win over people like me. There's a lot of people like me, and we have many things to fight for just to live. But the idea is win over more of our people. Talk the same talk, but easy, T.C.

With her own agency as a writer, Dorothy now declares her frequent incomprehension of T.C.'s letters not in order to foreclose communication but rather to reassert the need for "tenderness" and to begin to do the difficult work of translation ("talk the same talk, but easy") that will allow them to unify the "fragmented collectivities" of their community. Again, "learning" is emphasized. In the final shot of the film, Gerima positions Dorothy in the foreground and the poster of the Angolan revolutionary over her left shoulder in the background, only to let them shift into alternating clarity, first one and then the other coming into focus for the viewer. At UCLA, Gabriel taught film students like Gerima about the complex "double movement of cultural identification and radical historicization" that makes Third Cinema an art of revolutionary social change.58 Dorothy voices her own claim to "read and to study" and "to know herself," and this educational ambition evident in all of the exchanged audio letters announces the course of fugitive study that sends Gerima's film into two reciprocal directions at once: out from the university campus toward the urban Black community that can vivify and radicalize the subject of film-making too long beholden to racist histories and modalities of viewing; and, conversely, out from the oppressed urban community and toward the possibilities of radical educationthe original promise of the public universityin the service of social justice.

Shot in 1975, Bush Mama is at once the product of the enlarged social vision enshrined in the Master Plan for Higher Education, a devastating critique of that same liberalism's failure to realize full equality for Black people, and an augury of the further erosion of its welfare benefits before the wave of neoliberal privatization and criminalization to come by the end of the seventies. As Gerima edited the final cut of his masterpiece, he already knew the interrupted outcome of Davis's employment case across campus as well as the subsequent outcome of her criminal trial. The undercommons was not a foregone conclusion: both the film and the facts of the Davis case attest to the promise of the public university for Black study at the very moment the penal institutions of the state would be massively expanded to foreclose on those same possibilities.

The Commons, in the Break and on the Blink

The Superior Court of Los Angeles County ruled the Regents' actions in the Davis case unconstitutional, on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, on October 3, 1969, but removing Davis had become such an obsession for the Regents by this point that they were willing to invoke a kind of Hobbesian sovereign exception to the normal course of faculty and administrative governance to fire her anyway. Before they took this executive decision, however, Chancellor Young of UCLA set up a "secret" Ad Hoc Committee on February 17th, comprised of seven faculty members, to investigate the allegations against Davis and make a recommendation. Davis was not informed of the investigation nor given an opportunity to respond to the issues raised in its report, which would subsequently be submitted to the Regents. In his letter to this committee, Chancellor Young observed that these allegations fell into three general categories:

  1. That she has utilized her position in the classroom for the purpose of indoctrinating students;
  2. That her extra-University commitments and activities interfere with her duties as a member of the faculty; and
  3. That her public statements demonstrate her commitment to a concept of academic freedom which substantiates the first two charges and would ultimately be destructive of that essential freedom itself.59

In a scrupulous review of Davis's teaching notes and evaluations from students and faculty, as well as her public statements, the Ad Hoc Committee found no substantial grounds for action against Davis and made their recommendation to that effect. Their interpretation of the third item with its curiously circuitous syntax merits particular attention since it was on the basis of this highly subjective charge that the Regents (ignoring the Committee's conclusion) would take effective action. Although the Ad Hoc Committee members found elements of Davis's public speeches at times "offending against good taste," they professed a faith in the liberal contest of values: "In formulating our judgment we have proceeded on the assumption that a concept of academic freedom that rejects traditional academic values presents no threat unless it becomes prevailing doctrine; and it is our unanimous conviction that the best way to prevent it from becoming prevailing doctrine is to allow its free and lawful expression in competition with the philosophy embodied in the principles and resolutions adopted by the AAUP and the Academic Senate."60

While addressed to the substance of Davis's speeches, the report's language (advertently or not) doubles as a rejoinder to the Reaganite effort to monopolize the marketplace of "free" expression in order to fire her in the first place. The committee presumably registered the irony of their task by extensively quoting explicit references to Reagan and the Regents from Davis's speeches, but they seemed nonetheless to miss the point of Davis's critique by suggesting that she "rejects traditional academic values." In her Berkeley speech on October 24, 1969, Davis argued that academic freedom is "kind of an empty concept," but the context of her remarks is precisely the Right-wing push by the majority of the Regents to quell unfavorable speech. Her Berkeley speech, given alongside Herbert Marcuse, himself recently fired by the Regents, addresses academic freedom with explicit reference to a number of other professors and teachers around the state who had been fired for their radical ideas.61 The Regents, she declares, are "unscrupulous demagogues" who "intend to keep the knowledge developed in the university in the service of the prevailing oppression [and] ...  are committed to the immoral usurpation of power which rightly belongs to those who have the knowledge and the experience to pass rational ... judgments about the way in which education ought to be carried out."62

In her public speech in Santa Barbara on February 5, 1970, Davis also criticized the hypocrisy of academic freedom that could, while stripping political dissidents of their right to free speech, simultaneously protect the research into the "genetic inferiority of black men" conducted by Berkeley scientist Arthur Jensen. 63 The Ad Hoc committee interpreted Davis's condemnation of Jensen as "less than fair" but reasonably concluded that since her own public statements stop short of seeking to deny his right to teach, pursue his research or publish the results, they did not warrant disciplinary action.64 The Ad Hoc committee was thus aware of the double standard that the Regents would cynically exploit, or as Ibram X. Kendi wryly puts the point, "Academics were only truly free to espouse racist ideas."65 If the concept of academic freedom is thus ideologically contested, this owes more to the forces conspiring to fire Davis and other radical professors than it does to her critique of its putative objectivity. Through her public speeches, Davis exposed the extra-curricular Catch-22 enacted by the Regents: the impossible injunction to be a proper spokeswoman for the university attempting to fire you. Denying the conclusion of the Ad Hoc committee report, the Regents adopted the following extraordinary resolution:

The Regents hereby relieve the President of the University, the Chancellor of the Los Angeles campus and all other administrative officers of any further authority or responsibility in connection with the reappointment or non re-appointment of Acting Assistant Professor Angela Davis, and direct that the Board of Regents, acting as a Committee of the Whole, review the record relating to this matter and recommend appropriate action to the Board at its next regular meeting. (390)

Ignoring the judicious review of the Ad Hoc Committee and in repudiation of the proper protocols of faculty governance, their recommendation was predictable enough.

For Harney and Moten, viewed from the far side of what they perceive to be the fulfilled neoliberalization of higher education, Davis's precarious teaching position is no doubt marked in advance by its imminent "fugitivity," the crimininalization of her classroom already evidence of the future anterior tense of the undercommons what will have been driven underground. And they are not wrong: when the Regents lose the First Amendment case against Davis et. al. in state court, they nonetheless find the spurious grounds to fire her anyway on the basis of the impropriety of her public speeches. "Her labor," to quote Harney and Moten once again (if now with special resonance), "is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings."66 But unwelcome for whom? Certainly not the students, the faculty and the legal team who organized in defense of her right to teach in the University of California. Harney and Moten's view of the public university risks ceding too much to the forces devoted to its hostile takeover. This is why it is worth insisting on the scene of Davis's teaching as an event of active struggle in and for the commons of the public university.

University students protest Davis's arrest, 1971.

Offering what they forthrightly call a "bad reading" of Jacques Derrida's essay, "The Age of Hegel," Harney and Moten affirm that teaching is an operation of "that onto/auto-encyclopedic circle of the state" that Derrida calls the Universitas.67 In a sustained engagement with Hegel's 1822 report to the Prussian Minister of Education, Derrida tracks the way in which Hegel's own philosophical system at once mirrors the state's ambition to impose a worldview and exceeds that very ambition by demonstrating the local limits of its claim to encyclopedic totality. The deconstructive lesson for Derrida is that one must remain both for and against the university, within and without its context for thought at the same time. Sympathetic to Derrida's reading, Harney and Moten nonetheless seek to question the political price of this undecidability, no doubt with an eye toward the contemporary lumpen-professoriat that increasingly supports and sustains such interrogation. Derrida's conclusion, however, is worth quoting in full because of how fully it speaks to the situation at the University of California in the late sixties:

Whatever the particular forces in 'civil society' may be that dispose over the power of the State, every university as such (be it on the "right" or the "left") depends upon this model. Since this model (which, by definition, claims universality) is always in negotiated compromise with the forces of a particular State (Prussian, NapoleonicI and IIrepublican-bourgeois, Nazi, fascist, social democratic, popular democratic, or socialist), the deconstruction of its concepts, instruments and practices cannot proceed by attacking it immediately and attempting to do away with it without risking the immediate return of other forces that would welcome its disappearance. Immediately to cede and make way for the other of the Universitas might represent a welcome invitation to those very determinate and very determined forces, ready and waiting, close by, to take over the State and the University. Whence the necessity for a deconstruction not to abandon the terrain of the University when it begins to come to grips with its most powerful foundations.68

As we have already seen, the Reaganite forces of privatization were not only "ready and waiting," in Derrida's terms, to radically alter the liberal agenda of public education, but also calculatedly misrepresented the students themselves as precisely the "immediate" (i.e., internal) attack upon the university and its institutions that would alibi this rollback. Far from a kind of professional "negligence," the critical ambivalence of deconstruction seems like a matter of tactical foresight.

But if the events around Angela Davis's hiring and firing might be said to augur the rise the of the neoliberal university and the downward pressures upon the undercommons, they also offer a promissory instance of what Derrida elsewhere calls the "university to come." By this figuration Derrida imagines that

the new responsibility of the "thinking" of which we are speaking cannot fail to be accompanied, at least, by a movement of suspicion, even of rejection with respect to the professionalization of the university [...] which regulates university life according to the supply and demand of the marketplace and according to a purely technical idea of competence.69

The conception of freedom embodied in the Black liberation struggle, and on offer in Davis's course and in the films of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, is perhaps one name for this unrealized futurity. And it bears remembering that for the large majority of Davis's colleagues, her labor was both necessary and welcome. A less spectacular and therefore less remembered aspect of Angela Davis's case involved the UCLA Academic Senate's resolution to condemn the Regents, repudiate their support for the 1950 anti-communist policy and affirm her employment for the full two-year term of her original contract: As UCLA historian Gary B. Nash remembers:

1,673 faculty members had already petitioned the Regents, remonstrating against "that revolution, the unprecedented action of the board of Regents in summarily suspending the power of administration offices and intruding upon the process of evaluation of academic qualifications by peers, which is essential to a great university," and then had called upon the regents "to withdraw from a course fraught with peril for the future of the university."70

More astonishing than these formal, and largely symbolic, responses to the Regents' overreach, however, was the large-scale mobilization by student protestors and the decision of the Academic Senate to establish the Angela Y. Davis Fund Committee to raise money from faculty and staff to replace the salary that the Regents were set on withdrawing in the fall of 1970. Nash was put in charge of the committee and tasked with the collection of funds. He said:

We asked for three quarterly installments at the following rates: assistant professors ten dollars, associate professors twelve, and full professors fifteen [...] Between July 6 and July 30, when I made out the first check, which was for support of her July salary, 287 contributors had sent checks for a total of $4,505.71

Only one check was distributed a few days before the San Rafael courtroom shooting that would force Angela Davis underground and on the run, but those events should not eclipse this heroic act of faculty collectivization in support of their most precarious member. In defiance of the Regents and courting direct confrontation, their actions constitute what might be called an archaeology of the unmade future of public education in California. In this optative mood, Professor Nash recalls the faculty senate meeting in anticipation of further Regental action to strip Davis's courses of not only credit but a place to teach them:

She would have shown up on campus. Her course, a course of her preference and supported by the department of philosophy, would have been open to students. As a very controversial figure, students would have swarmed the course and if the registrar had refused to assign a classroom to it in deference to regental action, then the course would have taken place in the quadrangle there with the philosophy department's building on one side and the architecture school, and that would in effect have thrown the ball back into the Regents' court. What would they do to silence her? What would they do to punish students who took the course? What would they do to hundreds and hundreds of faculty members who were supporting her salary while she taught?72

The proper name for this prospective scene of teaching outside and between buildings is the commons, and the "university to come" also resides in the promissory significance of such past moments, however unrealized, when common cause in the interest of the public university's mission does not blink in the face of its imminent dispossession by the ideology of the market. As Derrida argues:

In a period of "crisis," as we say, a period of decadence and renewal, when the institution is "on the blink," provocation to think brings together in the same instant the desire for memory and exposure to the future, the fidelity of a guardian faithful enough to want to keep even the chance of a future, in other words, the singular responsibility of what he does not have and of what is not yet.73

What Derrida calls this "desire for memory" might be repurposed for an activist future in the protection and advancement of the precariat, to serve here as a ward against the cynical negligence that Harney and Moten diagnose in neoliberal academia. But the film production of the L.A. Rebellion and the teaching scene of Angela Davis indicate that we needn't wait for the messianic time invoked by Derrida as an act of fidelity to the unmet promise of the public university. At the tail-end of the sixties, the resources of the Black radical tradition had already turned the public university inside out in the manner that Nash only retrospectively imagines. Life on the streets of Watts, the internal colonization of the African American community and its connection to the broader Third World decolonization movements, Black life as the subject of philosophy and film these issues moved suddenly, if only for a short term, from the periphery of the public university to its center. Taken together, the brief institutional occupation by both philosopher and filmmakers points the way toward the realization of the Master Plan for Higher Education in a radical pedagogy devoted to social justice and equality. Little wonder, therefore, that this labor was fugitive before it began, a threat to the Right-wing vision of privatized education so extreme that it must be criminalized. I have tried to suggest here that Davis's course itself, alongside those films of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers who realized in their artistic production the expanded social vision of the public university, might be said to constitute evidence of what Davis called, in her third lecture, a "hiatus, the break between the noble moral ideas of western society in general and in particular." They teach us to think meta-reflexively about the concept of freedom in the break between the promise of the public university as commons and its neoliberal fulfillment as the institution that sits above the undercommons.

Coda for the Undercommons

It is tempting to view the most critically celebrated L.A. Rebellion film, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep in an elegiac mode, a dying fall for the radical promise of the commons.74 Burnett's neo-realist film about working-class Black lives in Watts eschews sentimentality as it represents the dehumanizing conditions that racial oppression, unemployment, and housing discrimination have wrought upon this internal colony of the United States. And yet Killer of Sheep has also become a nostalgia-laden film when viewed from far side of the so-called Reagan Revolution that further devastated the Black community of Watts. At the time of the filming, the main character Stan could still get a job as a manual laborer to (barely) support his family. Notwithstanding the crushing nature of this work, the family has not been torn apart by the privations to which they are subjected; the Watts community remains vital and strong in spite of its systematic degradation. Burnett registers something of this dual, prospective-retrospective pull of the film in a 2007 interview: "You can see the seeds of some future in the film" but "looking back over what you might call 'an age of innocence' is tough to watch."75

Perhaps no scene better represents the film's precarious present, a Black family and their community on the cusp of neoliberal atomization, than the image of Stan and his wife slow dancing to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" (1960). In a half-lit room, before a window to the whitewashed, over-exposed world outside, they rotate like two planets in the shared gravity of attraction and repulsion. Their bodies seem to ask the tenuous question of Washington's song "What good is love,/mmm, that no one shares?" before Stan finally pulls away from his wife's imploring caresses. That Burnett chooses to end his film with the same song playing over Stan's work in the stockyard, suggests all the more terribly that this love remains unredeemed in a world organized by the means-ends calculus of American "racial capitalism."76

Still from Killer of Sheep (1979)

But my essay has been keen to emphasize the "seeds" of an alternative future that is also available in the production history of Burnett's great film. Virtually every scene in Killer of Sheep is populated by children playing, and while their games often seem to rehearse the brutality of the adult world that is waiting to receive them, they also demonstrate how  imaginative aggression might be turned against that alienated life itself. An early scene takes place in one of the many industrial wastelands that serve as proxy playgrounds in Watts. A number of boys engage in a rock-throwing war that all-too-readily attests to a grim form of vocational training. Suddenly, however, Burnett cuts to a shot in which the camera is set upon the bed of a moving train; the boys now run toward the tracks throwing their rocks at the passing box cars and, by extension, at the putatively objective gaze that would capture them at play. To be sure, their now-coordinated attack is directed for a moment at the instruments of industrial capitalism that figuratively and literally pass them by. But the scene also points extra-diegetically to an even more productive form of coordination on view in Killer of Sheep. Those same children were also behind the camera, working on the sound and the lighting of the film. Burnett has insisted that ninety percent of the film was made with "nonprofessional" Watts children working on all aspects of the filming:

The idea was to bring filmmaking into the community and demystify it, to encourage kids that, look, if you can turn a HiFi on, you can turn a Nagra on and do sound. Just watch the button and keep it level. And they would do it. Five-year-old, six-year-old kids. The kids you see running around, they'd drag the lights, do the slate. The only thing they didn't do was change the magazine and load the camera, but everything else they had their hands on.77

In this light, Killer of Sheep is finally not only a film about a community in the grip of systemic impoverishment, but also a film that memorializes the unmet promise of the public university as a social good. Had the Master Plan for Higher Education in California not been sold out to Reaganite privatization, had the democratic diversification of the university's societal function not been traded on the market for the far slimmer returns of the plutocratic class, these same children might have found a place in the Ethno-Communications program of the UCLA film school. Their fugitive labor, then and now, is the abiding image of the undercommons. The seeds of an alternate future may reside in this ruptural moment in the past, when Angela Davis and the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers promised to redistribute the sensible as the highest aim of radical pedagogy, and when the precarious institutionalization of Black radical thought within the public university promised to make a theoretical freedom concrete at last.


Casey J. Shoop is Core Teaching Faculty in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon.



  1. Hour Glass, dir. by Haile Gerima (1971; Los Angeles: UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2013).[]
  2. "The MUC Program, which won a $17,200 grant from the Ford Foundation, was designed to train Black, Chicano, Asian, and Native American students at UCLA to use mass communication technologies to document their own communities and thereby increase understanding of and a sense of cultural participation for marginalized groups." Allyson Nadia Field, et. al., "Emancipating the Image: The L.A. Rebellion of Black Filmmakers," L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 9. []
  3. Or as Alessandra Raengo has written apropos of what she terms the "liquid blackness" of Gerima's film, "the filmic image, in other words, is handled as something that can stretch in two directions: toward what it shows and the thought process of which it is part." Alessandra Raengo, "Encountering the Rebellion," L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 308.[]
  4. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2013) 26.. []
  5. Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 4. []
  6. Quoted in Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012), 189. []
  7. Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 208.[]
  8. The way in which Ferguson's text tends to generalize about the "rise of interdisciplines" is perhaps a symptom of the very domestication he means to document. What would be the value in thinking about Black liberation philosophy or Black Marxism as a distinct historical formation rather than simply one sub-field of "ethnic studies" avant la lettre? Mark Brilliant's The Color of America has Changed (2010) demonstrates how adept Reagan was in using one form of minority activism (Latino or Chinese fears about English-only schooling) to fight another (integrated busing for the desegregation of African American schools). Our history of the "disciplinification" of race needs to attend to the real and historically specific meaning of these differences before "Difference." The phrase "winner-loses" is borrowed from Fredric Jameson's observations about Foucault in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). []
  9. Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012), 17.[]
  10. Angela Davis, An Autobiography (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 226.[]
  11. Quoted in "Academic Freedom and Tenure: The University of California at Los Angeles ," AAUP Bulletin 57, no. 3 (1971), 386. []
  12. Ibid., 387.[]
  13. As Davis recalls, "The racists and anti-Communists throughout the state responded with furor. Threatening calls and letters poured into the Philosophy Department and into the offices of the Communist Party. A man broke into the Philosophy Department offices and physically attacked [Department Chair] Don Kalish. A special telephone had to be installed in my office, so that all my calls could be screened before they reached me. The campus police had to be placed on alert at all times. Several times they had to check out my car because of bomb threats I had received." Angela Davis, An Autobiography (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 219. []
  14. I will refer hereafter to the lecture notes that I found in the Ad Hoc Committee files at UCLA (rather than the pamphlet) because their existence in this evidentiary dossier testifies to the Regental pressure to surveil her classroom in the effort to find incriminating evidence of students' ideological indoctrination. Of course, the lectures contain no evidence to this effect, as the confidential committee itself would later determine.[]
  15. Angela Davis, "Philosophical Themes in Black Literature," October 6, 1969, Folder 413, Angela Davis Ad Hoc Committee Papers, pp. 1-2. []
  16. Ibid., pp. 6.[]
  17. Ibid., November 26, 1969.[]
  18. Ibid., December 3, 1969, pp. 3. []
  19. Ibid., December 4, 1969, pp. 4.[]
  20. Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 205.[]
  21. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 28.[]
  22. Ronald Reagan, The Creative Society, 119.[]
  23. Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2008), 4.[]
  24. Gary K. Claybaugh, "The Educational Legacy of Ronald Reagan," Educational Horizons 82, no. 4 (2004), 256.[]
  25. Reagan, The Creative Society, 120.[]
  26. Ibid. For more on Reagan's contradictory moralism, see Michelle Reeves, "Obey the Rules or Get Out: Ronald Reagan's 1966 Gubernatorial Campaign and the Trouble at Berkeley," Southern California Quarterly 92, no. 3 (2010).[]
  27. For an insightful reading of Reagan's "settler colonialist imagination" of higher education read through his own campus films in the style of Michael Paul Rogin, see Curtiz Marez, "Ronald Reagan, the College Movie: Political Demonology, Academic Freedom, and the University of California," Critical Ethnic Studies 2, no. 1 (2016).[]
  28. Angela Davis, "Philosophical Themes in Black Literature," October 8, 1969, pp. 1.[]
  29. As she makes the connection in her Autobiography: "Not long after the demonstration had come alive, several reporters informed me that the Regents were done with their meeting and had already released their decision: I was not going to be rehired for the coming year. Now that our demonstration had been successfully concluded, we prepared to hold a press conference on the sidewalk outside the State Building. It seemed that the news media had been following a conscious policy of minimal or no coverage of the Soledad Brothers movement. I was determined that they not get away with it this time. Thus I made a point of phrasing all my responses in such a way that each sentence said something about the relationship between my firing and the repression of the Soledad Brothers and other political prisoners." Angela Davis, An Autobiography, 272. []
  30. Angela Davis, "Philosophical Themes in Black Literature," December 3, 1969, pp. 2.[]
  31. Ibid., 6.[]
  32. Ibid. 7. []
  33. Ibid., 12.[]
  34. "Emancipating the image" is the title of the introductory chapter to the long-overdue essay collection, Allyson Field et. al., L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015). Field, Horak, and Stewart attribute the phrase "emancipate the image" to filmmaker Ben Caldwell. []
  35. Teshome H. Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetic of Liberation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979), 7.[]
  36. Field et. al. acknowledge this point: "In an era of increasing cuts to public education and the decreasing accessibility of higher education for the poor and working class, the L.A. Rebellion stands as a reminder of the tremendous possibilities that can occur with greater access to public higher education and of the importance of students taking an active role in shaping their own education" Allyson Field, et. al., "Emancipating the Image," 5.[]
  37. Ibid., 8. See also David E. James, The Most Typical Avant Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005): "Despite intensive recruiting efforts, the program was never adequately supported; though it had enrolled ninety students overall, by 1973 its momentum was fading and it petered out. But it had succeeded in generating a critical mass of capable and committed filmmakers, who went on to create other cooperative organizations, including the Chicano Cinema Coalition, which linked students with Chicanos in the industry, the national Asian American Telecommunications Association, and especially the Asian film and video cooperative Visual Communications. Entering through the doors the Ethno-Communications Program opened, by the mid-1970s minority students were a significant presence in the film school" (304). []
  38. Charles Burnett speaks directly to this "fugitive study" when he refers to the practical expense of making films: "I was trying to extend my stay at UCLA; it was the cheapest place to make movies. At the time, it was like eighty dollars a quarter to enroll, and you had access to everything for eleven weeks. It would have cost many times that outside of school, so I just exploited the system. I really got my money's worth. A lot of students where were doing pretty much the same thing. It was a good time to be a filmmaker," quoted in Scott MacDonald, ed., "Charles Burnett," A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 109-10.[]
  39. Ibid., "Preface," xxi.[]
  40. Ibid., "Charles Burnett," 220.[]
  41. Cynthia Young makes this point powerfully: "If colonial bureaucracies quite literally represent another form of violence, one that assaults the mind as well as the body, then the comparison by U.S. Third World Leftists of urban communities and colonies cracks the shell of U.S. civil society, exposing its innardsthe schools, welfare offices, churches, hospitals, courtsas a manifestation of brute force. This is a provocative idea, one that helps close the gap between Third World colonialism and First World civil society and depends on taking seriously, deadly seriously, the everyday forms of oppression visited on communities like Watts. It also, of course, depends on the same liberation strategy often necessary in the colonial context: violent struggle that literally transforms the colonized into a "new subject," the product of a constant movement and principled criticism." Cynthia Young, Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 227. []
  42. Allyson Field, "Third Cinema in the First World," 1968 and Global Cinema, eds. Christina Gerhardt and Sara Saljoughi (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018), 278. []
  43. Bush Mama, dir. by Haile Gerima (1975), 16mm, b/w.[]
  44. Mike Murashige, "Haile Gerima and the Political Economy of Cinematic Resistance," Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video, ed. Valerie Smith (London: Athlone, 1997), 190-191.[]
  45. Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 258.[]
  46. Gabriel, Third Cinema, 7.[]
  47. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), 37.[]
  48. Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 10.[]
  49. Angela Davis, "Black Nationalism: The Sixties and the Nineties," The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Malden: Blackwell, 1998), 289-296.[]
  50. Murashige, "Haile Gerima," 193.[]
  51. Ibid., 198.[]
  52. Ibid., 196.[]
  53. The publication of Soledad Brother in 1970, George Jackson's prison letters, many of which were addressed to Angela Davis, makes plain the process whereby a militant masculinism is largely the reaction-formation of the continuous criminalization and incarceration of Black men. []
  54. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 20065[]
  55. See Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Function of the Public Welfare State (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), and more recently Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor (Duke University Press, 2009). []
  56. Gabriel, Third Cinema, 97.[]
  57. Ibid,, 97.[]
  58. Ibid., 97.[]
  59. Chancellor Young's letter quoted in AAUP, 391. []
  60. "Report of Chancellor Young's Ad Hoc Committee," reprinted as addendum A in AAUP, 412.[]
  61. Angela Davis, Public Address (Friday, October 24, 1969 UC Berkeley): "Now, the freedom to teach, the freedom to learn, is totally impotent if it is not accompanied by the freedom to act in a way that is consonant with the principle one believes in. How many instances of the violation of academic freedom which have occurred recently are the result of and are reinforced by the continued violation of real, concrete freedoms in the society? There's Marvin X at Fresno State, who is being denied the right to teach because he sees the path of Black liberation as being the construction of a Black nation. There's Dangerfield in Los Angeles, who is being denied the right to teach in a Black high school, Manual Arts, because he sympathized with the demands of the students and of the community to make that education relevant to the community, relevant to the Black liberation struggle. There's Saul Castro, who has attempted to do the same thing for the Chicano community. He is being denied the right to teach." []
  62. AAUP, 410. []
  63. Ibid., 397[]
  64. Ibid., 392[]
  65. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016), 412.[]
  66. Harney and Moten, Undercommons, 26.[]
  67. Ibid., 26.[]
  68. Jacques Derrida, "Age of Hegel," Who's Afraid of Philosophy? trans. Jan Plug (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), 148-49. []
  69. Jacques Derrida, "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils," Eyes of the University, trans. Catherine Porter and Edward P. Morris (Stanford University Press, 2004), 151. []
  70. Gary B. Nash, "UCLA and the Angela Davis Case," interviewed by Diana Meyers Baker, Oral History Program, University of California, 2003, 9. []
  71. Ibid. []
  72. Ibid.[]
  73. Derrida, "The Principle of Reason," 155. []
  74. Killer of Sheep, Burnett's 1973 UCLA senior thesis film, was later released in 1977.[]
  75. James Ponsoldt, "This Bitter Earth," Charles Burnett Interviews, ed. Robert E. Kapsis (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 153-154.[]
  76. The DVD release press kit makes clear that the original film ended with Dinah Washington's "Unforgettable," but the impossibility of clearing publishing rights on the song led to Burnett's reprise of "This Bitter Earth" at the end of the film. While the change may sacrifice some of the irony of what passes unremembered on the floor of the slaughterhouse, the reprise has the virtue of linking the affective struggles of the couple's earlier intimacy with the systemic labor that allows it to (barely) persist. The phrase "racial capitalism" is developed by Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism. For the intellectual history of its usage in Robinson's work, see Robin D. G. Kelley, "What did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?" Boston Review, January 12, 2017.[]
  77. David Lowery, "A Conversation with Charles Burnett," Charles Burnett Interviews, 163. Burnett's claim that ninety percent of the film's production was done by children occurs on pp. 8-9 in an interview with Catherine Arnaud and Yann Lardau, "An Artisan of Daily Life: Charles Burnett."[]