Interview with Ashes and Embers Filmmaker Haile Gerima: Part Two

The writer and director talks narrative accent, the Hollywood myth, and guerrilla filmmaking

Yesterday, we began 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. 

What do you see as the fallout of the mainstream film industry’s lack of diverse voices in the stories they produce? 
To little kids, it gives them, early in their life, division of superiority. That, I’ve seen going to school, I’ve seen it in my classmates’ behavior. It’s not out of being bad, it comes out of this whole culture that gives them this racial superiority silently while it’s dispensing subordination to others, quietly.

I agree. The film industry, they’re putting product out internationally that’s informing global culture, global race relations, global gender relations.
Thank you. One time, I’ll tell you, I went from the U.S. to Tunisia. In Tunisia, they’re watching this movie of this white policeman with his foot on a Black man’s face. You can not imagine the message of this, beyond its intention. The international implication.

As a kid, growing up — at that time, Hollywood could change hairdos in Latin America overnight. The industry has become phantom now. Hollywood is really an abstract name, because who is Hollywood? Is it 641 Hollywood Boulevard? No one can tell me where the actual location is. Hollywood is just a phenomenon, a mindset. People virtually believe there’s this thing called Hollywood. I tell my students, I say, “You finish school, where are you guys heading?” They say, “I’m going to go try Hollywood.” I said, “Do you have an address?”

I’m not sure people who would like to reform it know where the headquarters are. This is what worries me.

Right. And because of this myth of Hollywood — that myth is so convenient; it protects them from scrutiny. So when you were in UCLA, you were part of the L.A. School of Black Filmmakers.
Well, they call them now L.A. Rebellion. To me, the L.A. Rebellion idea was initially multicultural, multiracial. We were all together, fighting to let the school know we have also a story to tell, and you can’t just format us to forget our story, and be inundated with the idea of the three-act story.

Film defies it, to tell you the truth. Film defies such formula, because film is the idea of this series of single pictures strung up to make a story. Human story wants a dimensional narrative structure. In fact, what makes a human story experience is the unique difference of the structure, temperament, pace. Film tries to allow that. You can almost do what jazz musicians do.

Every filmmaker has a narrative accent that they bring. In fact, in American literature, if you look at Southern literature versus New York urban literature … Some of the best writers from the South, it is the way they occupy space and time, and pace and rhythm, and structure. In New York, the novelist is sandwiched in between traffic lights, taxis, and subways. The story projects that when it succeeds.

Looking back, the L.A. Rebellion Chicanos, the Japanese kids whose parents were gardeners in Beverly Hills — they were making movies about their fathers as gardeners. Some of those films made students cry, because they were telling it as a story, what we walked through every day and did not notice. They made the invisible visible.

What was the progression of the L.A. Rebellion? Are you still part of it, is it still happening?
No. Once we graduated, it disappeared. I think subsequent students came to UCLA through that vibration. “Where are these filmmakers? Oh, UCLA.”

I would say this, to tell you the truth. I have no interest in mainstream industry at all … I felt, “I have no time to fight this big monster that only makes certain kind of movies.” I was more attracted with these low-budget films coming out of Africa and Latin America. Our early films were made by this kind of courage. We shot our films guerrilla warfare style. Charles Burnett is a kind of filmmaker that needs a producer who says to him, “Okay, I’m going to get the money. You go somewhere, disappear somewhere, make your film, and come out.”

Filmmakers, in my view, if they’re freer, cinema would be transformed. The language of cinema would be transformed, stories would transform for human beings.

One thing I was curious about. You could have told a lot of stories to talk about the Black experience, and/or the Ethiopian experience, at the time that you made Ashes and Embers. Why did you choose that particular narrative? An American war vet coming home?
One, it’s personal. When I came to the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, there was a brother who came from Vietnam, and his name was Big Ben. I came to learn, and I found him to be terrorizing the teachers. He’s big, he sits in class, he doesn’t really exercise — in the acting class, he doesn’t do the exercises. He says, “I don’t feel like it.”

Another brother who was a fantastic actor went to Vietnam and came back, became like him. I said, “I want to make a film about, what is this mutation?”

The grandmother comes from an African-American woman who was a grandmother of a young lady I was dating; [that] is the seed cell of the character. The girlfriend Liza Jane belongs to a political study group. These are the people I see every day, and I wrote to depict this moment. Then the grandmother represents continuity, land, and struggle. He’s dislocated because of Vietnam. How does she realign him? It’s an imperfect film, but this is my struggle, is trying to tell, how do African-Americans transition generational genes or social genes?

Now, it goes here and there meandering, because he also wants to be an actor. Even in the world we shot, the so-called Hollywood is hazy. We shot it in a very hazy way. Then, he is also in the Washington, Richmond area. We have the political base of the United States, the Washington, the power, the monument, statue. Then, the dream factory, where Black people expect to get the definitive part.

Read Part Three of this interview here