From Vietnam to Leimert Park: The Suite Story of Ben Caldwell

From Vietnam to Leimert Park: The Suite Story of Ben Caldwell

When I received this assignment, I was well aware of the name and impact of Ben Caldwell. I knew of his community outreach and the extensive work he had done over the years to make the area of Leimert Park in Los Angeles, California, special for many people.  Growing up as a young HipHop Artist in California, I looked up to him. I didn’t know the man and the number of accolades he held across the globe as a Vietnam War Veteran, filmmaker, and figurehead for many pivotal decisions that continue to assist the South-Central area with its evolution.

From the gate, Caldwell’s story reminds you of one of the classic films of the 1960s; Jimi Hendrix's music accompanies the opening scene. Born in the mid-1940s, his journey as a filmmaker had several different ingredients that brought it to fruition. During a two-year animation course under the Disney Company, he learned about the fundamentals of filmmaking. His filmmaking journey would suddenly shift when he was drafted and sent to the historic yet controversial Vietnam War. His weapon of choice was a camera that he purchased while in Japan. We have all seen classic films over the years where the war photographer on the front lines captures the true magnitude of the conflicts of that era. Caldwell used that life-changing experience to fuel a film career that would span decades and multiple generations while breaking the barriers that traditionally kept people of color from reaching their highest potential.

So, when does SoCal come into play for Caldwell? Once back from “Nam,” he studied film in college in Arizona and transitioned to the master’s program at the home of the Bruins, UCLA, alongside other greats such as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Bill Woodberry {Wikipedia*}. There, he was part of the core group “The LA Rebellion,” which changed how Black people of Los Angeles were portrayed on and off the screen. Of course, this wasn’t something a lot of people in the whitely-dominated film industry of the 1970s wanted to see, and that alone is one of the first superpowers of Ben Caldwell. His fearless approach to ensuring how our culture, traditions, hardships, and accomplishments were communicated to the world was a catalyst for success in the land of the hopeless.

Caldwell quickly turned south central Los Angeles into a land of hope, planting his flag in the Leimert Park area. When asked why it was necessary to own land in Leimert, he stated, “When you own property, you can dictate what happens in your business, and as the ways and woes of the country go up and down, it affects you less so.” By being able to withstand those ways and woes, Caldwell built a foundation of success through various film projects like the films below that capture the essence of his causes and the quest to empower the south central community:

Media (1973)
I & I: An African Allegory (1979)
Gidget Meets Hondo (1980)
Festival Of Mask (1982)
The Snake in My Bed (1995)
Eyewitness: Reflections of Malcolm X & the O.A.A.U. (2006)
I Build The Tower (2006)
Leimert Park: Sankofa Project (2007)
La Buena (2008)

Though his passion began as a photographer turned filmmaker, his influence and impact metamorphosized once his multimedia training & amp; arts center Kaos was formed in 1984. By 1990 it became a safe space for aspiring artists and creatives to hone their skills and boy, did some major names learn how to do exactly that. “I wanted to create an educational place where youth could escape from the vaulted spaces that they have our kids in, which are our cultural studies spaces. The 1960s, for the Europeans, was a study area where they could vault, control, and know that kids didn’t have parents in their environments, and they destroyed our communities, and I wouldn’t stand for that,” said Caldwell.

His consistent work in Leimert Park has allowed him to connect with the youth before they make a name for themselves. Caldwell shared  a story about the late Nipsey Hussle: "Nipsey was one of my tech students when he was in Jr High.” He shared how it saddened him to know the capabilities of bright young minds are taken away due to keeping themselves in unfavorable environments. “Dipping yourself in the wrong pool can take you away from your true mission of purpose.”  He added,  “I was proud of him for amplifying his knowledge in his interviews, but the way he communicated his life in the street through his music may be why he’s no longer with us,”  Caldwell reflected. 

“We have to change the way our kids think as we have a cultural brain drain in our communities.” Caldwell shares his wisdom from his work in urban communities. “I chose this community to give back to cause I know there are powers that be that want to pump negative imagery into our kids,” Caldwell concluded.

Ben Caldwell’s passion for change continues as he assists with the development of all things Leimert and that also includes the billion-dollar transportation system for a mile circle around Leimert park. “From Western to La Brea, to Jefferson to Hyde Park is our footprint. We’ve been funded by a grant that has contracted us to provide the first and last mile of that area for Transit studies in Los Angeles, and we are the first to get it.”

Capturing the overall magnitude of Caldwell and his efforts in Leimert Park in this article is nearly impossible, so make sure you tap in to see how suite his impact is by subscribing to Suite Life SoCal, as we will be revisiting his journey soon. Until next time LA……

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