The iconoclastic filmmaker, whose career spans five decades, reflects on his “lifetime struggle” to survive in an environment that insists on him being anything but himself.
The Haile Gerima story is one of personal and professional resistance. A warrior whose chosen weapon is cinema, Gerima has been at the forefront of the Black independent film movement for almost 50 years, leading a charge to counter the West’s history of gross misrepresentations of the Black experience with complete and complex stories about what it means to be Black, viewed through a global lens.
Most exemplary of this ethos is his epic 1993 slavery-era revolt drama, “Sankofa,” which has now been given new life in a partnership between Gerima’s Mypheduh Films and Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing. A brand-new 4K restoration of the film is available today on Netflix in the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Gerima will also be honored by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures with its inaugural Vantage Award as part of its opening gala on September 25.
For Gerima, the chance to introduce the film to new global audiences, and perhaps the next generation of filmmakers from underrepresented communities, is a thrill. As he tells it, filmmaking is a powerful medium that should be emancipatory, especially for people of color.
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Gerima immigrated to the United States in 1967 at the age of 21, where he began to fully appreciate the work of his influential dramatist and playwright father, who wrote and staged anti-colonial plays throughout Ethiopia — a country that fought to fend off Italian occupation during the first half of the 20th century.
“I came to America very mentally colonized, and I think my journey disappeared in the mythology of the white American idea of America, which was quickly busted by the African American political movement of the late ’60s,” Gerima told IndieWire during a recent interview. “They were teaching Black children all over the world that Black people had no role in the history of their liberation. That awokened me to really find my own purpose. Gradually, the racism in America caused my retreat into myself, and threw me into the Black American Power Movement and to recognize the significance of the anti-colonialist work my father did, which I may not have fully grasped as a child.”
Upon engagement with American cinema culture, Gerima’s early rigorous inquiry into what he called “dominant Eurocentric standards” in terms of acceptable forms of storytelling structure, style, and content, led to questions about the “sociopolitical and spiritual conditions” required for a person of African descent to survive, let alone thrive in a white supremacist society.
“I had no choice but to go this route, and I decided I was going to salvage myself after watching all those American cowboy and Indian movies when I was growing up, rooting for the cowboys, not realizing that the Indians were me, in the middle of all this racist culture,” he said. “As an artist, it was impossible not to be political at the time, and even today. I became remade by Black America’s liberation struggle, the Cuban Revolution, what was going on in Latin America, and anti-Vietnam war movement.”
Gerima’s resistance to the notion of film as entertainment, and his belief that cinema should “haunt the audience all the way to their bedrooms,” is evident even in his earliest work, notably the aptly titled 1973 short film “Child of Resistance,” with its disharmonious editing, unapologetic disregard of any form of linear narrative flow, and distressing imagery that served as symbolism for Black cultural stagnation.
Inspired by Black Power activist and college professor Angela Davis’ 1970 imprisonment, the film’s lament reflected the mood among African Americans at the time, who were grappling with forming a post-Civil Rights era identity. But it also rebuked the Black community for readily contorting itself into the box that white America had assigned it — what Gerima referred to as “a people who were cloned by white people as slaves, who didn’t have an origin nor an abstract.”
It was the same mood that led to the collective imaginations of a group of Black UCLA student filmmakers, known today as the L.A Rebellion, who set out to overwhelm the landscape of cinema over the next three decades, with radical films of Black liberation. Among them were Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Zeinabu Irene Davis, Julie Dash, and, of course, Gerima.
“Culturally, politically, and cinematically, we were anti-Hollywood filmmakers,” Gerima said. “We insisted on carving out our own cinematic blueprint, and our films provided a transformation in the politics of cinematic thought that were distinctly Black.”
The resistance narrative continued to manifest itself in Gerima’s Rebellion work, as in the fate of the protagonist of his feature debut “Bush Mama” (1975), which follows a Black woman navigating the Los Angeles criminal and judicial system, as her political consciousness is awakened. It’s also evident in successive films like “Harvest: 3000 Years” (1976), “Ashes & Embers” (1982), and the documentary “After Winter: Sterling Brown” (1985).
But it’s for his epic cinematic treatise on the transatlantic slave trade, “Sankofa,” which Gerima would come to be most known. The tale of a plantation slave revolt was groundbreaking for its time, and has become more valuable almost 30 years since its initial release. This is, in part, because, prior to “Sankofa,” realistic depictions of the African experience during slavery were rare, beyond a few exploitation films in the 1970s and the Emmy-winning miniseries “Roots.”
Mypheduch Films/Courtesy Everett Collection
With a budget well below the average Hollywood studio film, Gerima managed to ensure that his portrayal of the institution of slavery and the presentation of African cultural traditions were authentic. It’s a detailed film that inserts the audience into its heroine’s mind as her moral sense is changed by her environment; not-so unlike Gerima’s own experience upon arriving in the U.S. In both instances, necessary, though discomforting questions were raised.
“The Black, African diasporic experience globally is one of struggle, if we were to point to some characteristic that we all share,” he said. “And so, for me, it’s very important that we don’t depict ourselves as victims. We had the audacity without the money, to shoot on 35mm film, to show resistance as very much a part of the experience of slavery. The existence of the work alone serves as a counter to the more acceptable understanding of who we are, but we must consistently show that we can resist, and we can fight back.”
Engrossing and provocative, the urgency of “Sankofa” lends the Rebellion canon resonance in today’s cultural and political climate, amid a so-called racial reckoning. For Gerima, “Sankofa” remains what he describes as an “eternally imperfect achievement.”
“I come from a different cultural context and every time I try to choke my story into a three act structure, it becomes toothless,” he said. “As people of African descent, we came with our own form that has not been allowed to mushroom. And therefore, I would say my struggle to harmonize my form in the face of a foreign rhythm and structure is imperfect, and I would be stupid to try to perfect it within those confines. So perfection for me is when I’m imperfect within conventions, because it means that I’m getting closer to where I should be.”
“Sankofa” was ignored by U.S. media and distributors, despite being an official selection of the Berlin International and AFI film festivals in 1993. In the spirit of self-agency, Gerima, along with his wife Shirikiana Gerima, self-distributed the film in the U.S. via their Mypheduh Films.
Traveling with the film over two years, that grassroots effort tapped into African American communities and booked sold-out screenings in independent theaters around the country. Gerima remains steadfast in his refusal to relinquish rights to his intellectual property, to what he deems a hostile industry with no respect for the narrative or the storyteller.
“As artists, we can choose not to have this very demoralizing relationship of dependency with the system, and so for me, it’s been a lifetime struggle,” he said. “My wife and I have always dreamt of a Black business person who knows the business, as well as the power and capacity of the collective Black community, to really take over our ideas of independence, and bring our films to our community, through any system that makes sense.”
Enter Ava DuVernay, whose own brand of resistance, self-reliance and determination, as evident in the launch of the grassroots ARRAY Releasing collective, and an insistence on hiring only women directors for her television series, “Queen Sugar” (paving the way for others to follow), impressed Gerima. It’s a relationship that has evolved since his initial introduction to DuVernay in 2013, who was inspired by Gerima’s grassroots model.
Three years later, ARRAY acquired Gerima’s “Ashes and Embers,” which won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1983 Berlin International Film Festival, but was never picked up for U.S. distribution. Following a restoration through the ARRAY Classics initiative, the film was released in 2016.
“She’s cultivating independent existence while also working in the industry that subsidizes her independent spirit, which I think is survival,” he said of DuVernay. “This is a sister who Black people have given me, because I’m an invention of Black people. No white Americans have ever ‘discovered’ me. Black people, ordinary Black people, when I first showed my short film in Oakland, hugged me, cried. That’s validating my filmmaking.”
Currently, Gerima is prepping to release a five-hour documentary titled “Black Lions and Roman Wolves.” Forty years in the making, this tribute to his late father chronicles the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the mid-’30s, during which chemical weapons were used to poison millions of people. It’s an ambitious project produced with the same resistance spirit that has defined his career, and that, as a professor, he works doggedly to instill in his Howard University film students.
“I’ve always told them, I don’t care what they do to live, but I expect them to build their own house, their own institutions, because, having come from 400 years of living in somebody else’s house, in this kind of neurotic, schizophrenic situation, it’s high time for Black people to create independent institutions,” he said. “Here, white students graduate into an industry; Black students graduate into a desert.”
He insists that the only way forward for a revolutionary Black cinema is for young Black filmmakers to build on already established storytelling vocabularies in order to transform the medium.
“Young filmmakers today are being lazy and do not learn from the ‘imperfect’ contributions of those who came before them,” he said. “There is a rush to embrace the status quo, even if their traditions tell them otherwise. We essentially are making Black versions of white imagination. What is wrong with us? White culture is exhausted culture; toothless culture. The new vibrations are going to come from us, from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The question is whether young filmmakers can begin to step into that historical responsibility, and I’m not so sure.”
“Sankofa” is now streaming on Netflix. The film begins a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles on September 24 via ARRAY Releasing.
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