Interview With Ashes and Embers Filmmaker Haile Gerima: Part Three

The writer and director talks Hollywood racism’s affect on kids, white principality, and the importance of <em>Mississippi Burning</em>

Yesterday, we ran the second segment of our three-part interview with filmmaker Haile Gerima, whose 1982 film, Ashes and Embers, is being digitally restored and re-released by filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, Array Releasing. The movie tells the story of a Black Vietnam veteran who has dreams of becoming an actor, and the challenges — both personal and professional — that he faces. Ashes and Embers is now streaming on Netflix. 

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Gerima graduated from UCLA in 1975 as part of the L.A. Rebellion, a group of film students known for their refusal to adhere to the mainstream film industry’s storytelling rules. He now teaches film at Howard University and continues to make and distribute his own work. 

Can you tell me about how your films reframe and restructure the Black story and narrative?
For me, the very logic of this whole demonizing and extricating from the history of America the rebellion history of Black people is to say they were never human, because all human beings would rebel. White people would rebel if they were found in that circumstance. Even in Sankofa, I’m saying the fact they rebelled and resisted, that they’re saying, “I’m human, too.” That is a very important point in the race struggle.

Films are made always to make Black people’s heroic chapter subordinate to white principality. I don’t know now if it’s still the same. For example, at one point in Hollywood, when a producer says, “What’s the point of entry?” It meant, at that time, who’s the white character who sanctions this story? “What is the point of entry?” is the code word to say, “Who’s going to sanction this film?”

Where’s the white person?
Brad Pitt. Yeah. You need Brad Pitt, then, he’s going to drive. The subordination of Black narrative is very unacceptable to me.

I don’t know why, but some people even say, “We hear you’re anti-Hollywood.” First, I don’t even know how I can be anti something I never comprehended, never had the address, never had the president of that organization, or the soldiers of that organization.

I am that, but I’m saying there are unacceptable arrangements in story narrative that are fundamentally racist, and it’s not going to be accepted by future generations. That makes you militant? I don’t get it.

Can you tell me some films that you’ve seen that in recently? What are the most egregious examples of that, as far as you’re concerned?
I cannot tell you that now, because I have not seen [new] movies. I’m watching old, classic films with my daughter. In the early times, it was impossible to have principal race. For example, in The Fugitive Kind, Tennessee Williams. On the outskirt of that narrative is Black story, it’s racism, it’s lynching, but you don’t see it.

Later on, you know, there were race movies made by film directors, but often they were concocting this kind of narrative … The ultimate one, the last one I went for was Mississippi Burning. There is a blatant, “Here’s a historical chapter that no one contests that Black people are the authors of.” In fact, this is where Ava comes in and she restored so much of that history there.

I’ll tell you what, I don’t understand why, for example, Driving Miss Daisy continues to be even in the theaters. In the end, what they do is alienate Black audiences. At the expense of Black people, the narrative creates white principality. You could even see it in the poster. You can see the white principal character and you can see the Black character in the poster itself.

You’re right. You can tell immediately how the movie is going to be.
Well, I’ll tell you. In fact, one aspect of the abuse of the Black essence [is], movies have taken liberty on Black human beings, the beating and the killing of Black people. You don’t know how much that manifests in the self-destructive motive, in inner-city violence. Even the role it played in the self-destructive Black on Black crime, the devaluing of the Black human being. How much, over the years, has this mainstream industry contributed?

To me, the terminology of divisive racism originates in the culture. The cultural givers of the divisive vocabulary are uncriticized. They are liberals, they are a bastion of liberal communities, and every racist vocabulary that comes out of there … The industry who’s producing the vocabulary of racism has never been taken to task. No one has ever taken them to task.

Mm-hm. These are the bastions of culture creation, and the way it’s internalized, people rarely talk about that. I don’t know why. As any human, you know what it means to internalize and how you see something portrayed, or how you see it a certain way, you internalize it.
Especially, let me tell you my friend, especially kids. The little kids are the casualties of grown-ups who are not considerate in the way they talk about other people. Even now when they are running for this presidential stuff, demonizing Mexicans. If my father was this gardener, how do I feel?

The kids don’t have context. The Mexican guy doing gardening in Beverly Hills has the tools to survive this far. He knows how to navigate and negotiate through booby traps of white supremacist vocabulary, but the little kids, how do they manage? When he sees his ancestors depicted a certain way, how does he feel?

That is, to me, is the most disheartening stuff.

You’re right. When you see a whole society, or a whole group of people showing disrespect to your parents, I mean.
It’s so sad. To me, when I’m hearing about this whole talking about Mexicans in this disparaging way. I said, “Parents can take you. They quietly work in their room, don’t worry, but the kids, their kids, you’re hurting their kids. You are mowing down a future generation that could go in the wrong direction for having been disfigured.”

Well, thank you so much for talking with me. This has been a real pleasure.
Thank you.