Tue, Sep 28, 2021 8:01 AM
By LINDSEY BAHR, AP Film Writer
Filmmaker Haile Gerima is having a long overdue moment and he’s a little conflicted about it.
The 75-year-old director of “Bush Mama” and “Ashes and Embers” has proudly operated outside of mainstream Hollywood for almost 50 years. Now retired and living in Washington D.C., where he taught film at Howard University for decades, Gerima has found himself in a spotlight that he’s unaccustomed to with a 4K restoration of his 1993 epic “ Sankofa ” that’s newly available on Netflix and a retrospective series at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures beginning Oct. 2.
And neither might have happened were it not for Ava DuVernay. Long a student and champion of Gerima’s groundbreaking films, DuVernay spearheaded the restoration of “Sankofa” through her company ARRAY Releasing.
“Mr. Haile Gerima is the reason I was inspired to create my own film distribution company and he is, very simply, one of my heroes,” DuVernay said. “He disrupted the system long before anyone was willing to take notice and continues to chart his own path.
Though Gerima has eschewed Hollywood’s overtures through the years, in DuVernay he found a kindred spirit devoted not just to her own career, but to the amplification of Black narratives through independent distribution.
“She’s thinking horizontal,” Gerima said in a recent interview. “She’s planning the future cinema of the African American world.”
Gerima told DuVernay she could have any of his films. She chose “Sankofa,” a meditation on the generational trauma of slavery that takes a modern model on a shoot in Ghana and transports her back in time to a plantation in America. Although the film was celebrated at international festivals at the time, it was not widely released in the U.S. But by then, he was already used to self-distributing his and his peers’ films to universities and cultural centers.
Distribution has been a passion for the Ethiopian born and raised Gerima, going back to his time at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it became abundantly clear that if he wanted to get his and his peers’ stories out to the world, he’d have to do it himself.
It was there that he found likeminded peers who were interested in rebelling against the Eurocentric language of cinema and “empowering their own narrative accents.” Prominent filmmakers that emerged out of the L.A. Rebellion community include Gerima, Charles Burnett, Larry Clark and Julie Dash.
“We felt the many mainstream distribution, even alternative distribution, often could not see what we see in our story,” Gerima said. “The mainstream industry often works from a very white supremacist paradigm.”
But the business itself was not sustainable.
“We didn’t have the cash flow power because we also made sure 80% went to filmmakers against business logic because that was what we felt we deserve as filmmakers,” he said. “It was not a coherent business, but it was out of rebelliousness that it came about and it was very anarchistic. We didn’t have the business savvy to continue it. So for Ava to come along and offer to take over the distribution is very important.”
Then came the opportunity from the Academy Museum, which involved being recognized with the inaugural Vantage Award and a retrospective screening series. DuVernay made the ask and stopped him before he could even answer.
“She said to me, ‘I know you’re going to say no,'” he laughed.
DuVernay asked for the chance to explain and for him to think about it for a week.
Gerima ultimately agreed, but on his terms. The series, “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and his Comrades,” which begins Oct. 2 and runs through Nov. 14, will include screenings of Gerima’s shorts and features, like his groundbreaking thesis film about a woman from Watts, “Bush Mama.” The program also includes screenings of “Ashes and Embers,” the world premiere of a new restoration of “Wilmington 10 - USA 10,000” and “Harvest: 3000 Years.” It will also highlight works from his peers, mentees and students.
“I’ve never lost faith in people and human beings on a racial basis. But I know industry is industry and capitalism is capitalism. If the museum wants to recognize an outsider as me, they have to recognize the many dead bodies that never made it to where I am. I’m going to remind them that. I’m going to say this is recognizing me, thank you, but is it going to be sustainable? Are the well-meaning people who made this choice, will they remain to reinforce it? I am a little bit conflicted about it. And that’s my energy. I’m not bought in, I never wanted it.”
“But if it helps at least in the democratic preservation of all ethnic groups’ cinematic contribution, if this moment could be a reminder of that, I’m for it,” he continued. “So many works perished because they were not considered stories ... I’m imperfect on an imperfect journey. I did it as ... best as I could. But I want young people in the future who would come to give a chance to look at my work, what I tried to do, and then go from it."
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr