Fifty years ago today, rioting broke out in Watts in connection to the arrest of Marquette Frye. The resulting trauma defined the neighborhood, much in the same way Ferguson, Missouri carries the weight of Michael Brown’s death (the one-year anniversary of which was on Sunday). In December 2014, Watts was cast in a different light when Felicia, a short documentary delving into the life of African American teenager Felicia Bragg, earned itself a spot in the National Film Registry.
Created by three white UCLA students in 1965—before the riots broke out—Felicia shadows Bragg, then a 16-year-old junior at Jordan High School. While the esoteric film lasts a brief twelve minutes, Bragg’s straightforward account of her circumstance—the child of a single, struggling mother; a young student striving for a college education (not to mention her struggle with segregation)—illuminates the period’s tense atmosphere. We spoke with North Carolina State Professor Marsha Gordon, one of the people responsible for the preservation and nomination of Felicia into the National Film Registry, to learn more about the short’s impact.
August 9 marked the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson riots and today, August 11, marks the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots. In light of racial tensions still rampant in the U.S., how do you think Felicia should be interpreted?
The film is so pertinent because it was made before the rebellions that took place. This film was marketed as a film by the University of California extension media who distributed it and was marketed as a way to help people understand and think about Watts in a fashion that they never would be able to again. Once those uprisings happened, all of a sudden, Watts became synonymous with violence and vandalism. Even to this day, people associate Watts with these ideas. What’s really powerful is that this film offers us a moment in time where Watts is this poor and working class community where people are trying to figure out how to better themselves, how to get an education. Felicia Bragg, by the way, went on to go to the University of California Santa Barbara. She was one of only a handful of students of color when she went in the late ’60s, and so she was able to fulfill the promise of a higher education. Obviously not everyone was able to do that, so it is a reminder that Watts became so disproportionately defined by what happened in August in ‘65. I don’t think we associate any other city with rioting so much as we do with Watts.
You and Skip Elsheimer from A/V Geeks are credited with digging up Felicia. What about this particular film that stood out to you?
The thing that immediately struck me about this film was how incredible it is for a young woman to be so articulate about the world she lives in, the social challenges that make her circumstances very particular to a certain place in time—we’re talking about race, we’re talking about socio-economic status, and we’re talking about geography. You see images of her community and her neighborhood and parts of it are rather blighted. She talks about the conditions, for example, of the car dumps looming over where people live in this community. It’s very poignant. And she is so aware of her own feelings, she’s so aware of why she is where she is, and she’s so capable for someone her age of speaking about both her particular situation and her community’s situation. I can’t think, personally, of another film in which there’s a character who is so aware at that stage in her life. This was not scripted.
I was going to ask if this film was at all scripted.
My colleague Allyson Field and I did a screening of this film as part of a program at the Echo Park Film Center a couple years ago. We did a Q&A afterwards, and as with every other time I’ve screened this film in public, people are so taken in by this young woman’s intellect and sophistication as a thinker. I think everyone looks at that and goes, “I wasn’t like that when I was that age.” There’s promise and hope and yet also this sense of realism that this young woman has about her situation in life, and that’s a powerful thing to see.
Have you been to Watts?
I have, yes. Of course the Watts Towers are a very cool thing to see, so I’ve been there several times. One of the things I’d really like to do is show this film in DVD form at the high school where this was originally filmed, Jordan High School. I believe that the school is now primarily Hispanic; at the time it was primarily African American, but I would really like to go back and show the film and have a discussion with kids at that high school about what resonates for them about the film now and what’s different about it in their world.