By Brandon Wilson | Shadow and Act December 20, 2011 at 12:25PM
When I asked Jerri Hayes how it felt to revisit her star turn in Jamaa Fanaka’s second feature Emma Mae (1976) after a recent screening, she answered without hesitation. “You know, it’s so different; I was sitting there relating to Emma Mae like it wasn’t me” she replied.
Hayes flew from New York City to attend the screening. She joined Fanaka, and many cast and crewmembers on the stage after the film. The screening was one of the last of UCLA Film & Television Archives’ monumental retrospective of the L.A. Rebellion films.
Hayes played the eponymous heroine of Fanaka’s second feature (renamed Black Sister’s Revenge by a distributor looking to cash in on blaxploitation). She was attending UCLA as a drama student when Fanaka approached her about starring in his second feature (the second of three he made while at UCLA Film School).
In the end, Fanaka may be the greatest revelation in this series. I already knew a good deal about the movement and many of its members, but Fanaka’s work has proved to be the most surprising for the way he deftly employs convention while subverting it at the same time in his films.
Emma Mae tells the story of a country girl from Mississippi (where Fanaka hails from), who has come to Los Angeles to live with family members. Emma is so country she reacts with bewilderment at the sight of her first taco. But if you think she’s a mere rube that is exactly what Fanaka wants you to think. It makes Emma’s subsequent journey and transformation all the more surprising and riveting. That the catalyst for this change is a man is both conventional and (by the time Fanaka is done with the story) radical.
Like Penitentiary, Emma Mae glides along with an infectious glee, even when the story drifts into dark areas. Fanaka’s two features hum with a joy in filmmaking with every second that passes. His keen ear for clever and revealing dialogue is also on display here.
Emma Mae covers two of the key themes in the L.A. Rebellion: migration and personal transformation. And one of the truly great joys of this series has been watching each week as each filmmaker presents his or her own take on these topics.
While there is a revenge element to the film, there is so much more if you choose to treat the film as more than a diversion. The film makes that clear in its opening scene, which captures an idyllic afternoon at a Compton park. It recalls the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Crooklyn except that where Spike had to recreate, Fanaka simply documents the actual moment. But bigger than this is the fact that Fanaka’s film is really about the sad transition that occurred in mid-1970’s Black L.A.: when the dreams of the Civil Rights & Black Liberation Movements ebbed only to be replaced by street nihilism.
It has been my oft-expressed desire in writing about this series that these films travel to other cities and get the kind of DVD release they deserve. I have also repeatedly talked about the performers. The directors have struggled to get their due, but auteurism ensures that they will always receive the praise first when it is aimed at the films. But (along with the critics who champion the films) the actors are often the unsung heroes of this movement.
Jerri Hayes is emblematic in this respect. The Alabama native never acted in another film after her debut role in Emma Mae. She moved to New York and focused on her family. “At first, I couldn’t watch a play without crying because I missed it so much” she said of her decision to stop acting. “But then I looked at my little one and I looked at New York and thought if the streets took my daughter I’d never be able to deal with it.” And so she quit. Now that her daughter is in graduate school, Hayes hopes to return to her first love. She is currently preparing a one-woman show, and hopes to one day work again with Fanaka. Their enduring mutual admiration was a pleasure to witness.
Hayes’ choice was hers to make. One cannot witness her transform herself from an innocent to a warrior in Emma Mae without wondering what performances we’ve missed out on from her. The final irony is that her decision to walk away stems from her desire to make sure her own daughter didn’t suffer a fate similar to Emma Mae’s sad path.
One can only speculate what long term impact this screening and this retrospective has had on Hayes, Fanaka, and all the other actors and directors who revisited their work in the last ten weeks. But with a little luck, perhaps this series will live up to its subtitle (“Creating A New Black Cinema”) by reinvigorating the actors and directors as they finally begin to receive the recognition so long overdue. I’m sure they all, like Hayes, have a lot left to offer.