A Filmmaker Who Sees Prison Life With Love and Complexity


In 2007, Bradley moved from New York to Los Angeles to attend film school at the University of California. It was a lonely period. She felt alienated amid L.A.’s distended landscape. Afraid of driving, she resorted to taking the bus down Sunset from her Silver Lake apartment to U.C.L.A.’s Westside campus, an hour’s ride in traffic. But when she finally arrived on campus, she didn’t feel at home there. While Bradley’s interests already tended toward the experimental, she struggled with the program’s emphasis on the how-tos of production. There wasn’t much time spent doing what Bradley really wanted to do: watch some movies.

During her first year, she met the filmmaker Billy Woodberry, who worked in the program’s equipment office and taught at CalArts. A cigarette-smoking cinephile, he invited her to watch films with him. “Whatever he was watching, I’d want to sit next to him and watch, too,” she recalled. Woodberry himself studied in the same film program, which beginning in ’60s attracted a group of young Black filmmakers who came to be called the L.A. Rebellion, gathering in and around U.C.L.A. after the Watts uprising.

These filmmakers were only a few miles away from the Hollywood dream factory but felt that they existed in a different world. They repurposed the techniques they discovered in international cinema in order to represent the realities of the Black neighborhoods that exploded in 1965. Many of these films told stories of working-class Black families (often portrayed by nonprofessional actors) through loosely structured, peripatetic narratives that turned on rigorous repetition of striking images, as with the motif in Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” of crying Black boys, or shots in Woodberry’s “Bless Their Little Hearts” of the crumbling postindustrial South Los Angeles ghetto. Shorts like Julie Dash’s “Four Women” and Barbara McCullough’s “Water Ritual #1” eschewed narrative in favor of dance and ritual in order to draw a connection between an African diaspora, the enslaved past and the Black present. Deeply collaborative in nature (the movement’s members often starred in or worked behind the scenes of one another’s films), the L.A. Rebellion was determined to offer representations that Hollywood had no interest in surfacing.

For Bradley, watching these films “was a validating experience,” she told me. “Maybe I wasn’t messing up. Maybe I was experimenting. Maybe there was order to what felt like complete madness.”

The Rebellion’s influence on her work is clear in “Below Dreams,” Bradley’s 2014 narrative feature debut. Shot in a loose vérité style as a series of entwined stories about young adults navigating economic insecurity, it meanders, largely allowing its images to tell the stories of Jamaine, an unemployed single father desperately trying to secure a job; the single mother, Leann; and Elliott, a New York transplant. Elliott might be a stand-in for Bradley herself, who relocated to New Orleans from Los Angeles in the middle of her graduate program. She was in the habit of taking bus trips to New Orleans in the summers, during which she’d strike up conversations with her fellow passengers. “I was asking people the same questions I was asking myself — what I wanted in life and what I thought was going to get in the way of it, and how I was going to overcome it,” she remembered. Bradley eventually brought along a recorder.