Date of Award

August 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Vicki A. Callahan

Committee Members

Gregory Jay, Sandra Jones, Shelleen Greene, Robert Smith


African American Independent Cinema, Charles Burnett, L.A. Rebellion, South Los Angeles, Watts Revolt


The films of Charles Burnett from 1969 through 1990 focus on the presentation of black working-class men in South Los Angeles as the decline of industrial jobs alters the socioeconomic landscape. Two periods that are important to understand the historical reference of Burnett's films are the Second Great Migration, in which African Americans evacuate the oppressive climate of Jim Crow to live in Los Angeles during World War II, and the Watts Revolt, a week in August in which residents of the Watts region revolted against law enforcement and business owners in response to the treatment of two African American motorists by California Highway Patrolmen. Burnett's films contain influences from Third Cinema and Modernist European Cinema, as shown in the use of handheld cameras on location shoots with non-professional actors. Burnett's earlier films rely on an episodic narrative structure to follow how his black male protagonists either transform their lives to adjust to the now-limited work opportunities, or stagnate themselves because the new climate has made them apathetic towards any hope for progress. His later films incorporate spatial narration, a storytelling strategy that relies on the formula of the classical Hollywood narrative. Rather than use this narrative structure commonly found in mainstream American cinema to establish a conflict, climax, and resolution within the story, Burnett is more focused on the relationship between space and time, demonstrated in the onscreen presence of older and younger characters and issues that pertain to both historical (i.e. migration era) and contemporary (i.e. post-Watts Revolt) identity. Ultimately, this project identifies components in Burnett's filmmaking style and storytelling approach that allow him to present the lives of black working-class men of South Los Angeles and how they are effective.