Interview With Ashes and Embers Filmmaker Haile Gerima: Part One

The writer and director talks unorthodox storytelling, racism at Hollywood studios, and working outside the mainstream

Haile Gerima left Hollywood long ago.

Part of a group of 1970s UCLA film students who came to be known as the LA Rebellion for their refusal to adhere to the mainstream film industry’s storytelling rules, he recognized quickly that Hollywood studios weren’t interested in funding or backing his films, which tell stories about Black lives from the perspective of Black protagonists. And so, in 1975, Gerima decided to pick up and move to Washington, DC, to work on his own terms and in his own location.

He’s been there ever since. But now, a new generation of filmmakers is picking up where Gerima and his peers left off. Those who can’t get their stories financed or distributed by studios are turning to their own communities and business acumen to bring their artistic visions to the screen. In keeping with that tradition, filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, Array Releasing, has digitally restored and re-released Gerima’s 1982 film, Ashes and Embers. 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 won the Grand Prix Award at the Lisbon International Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Film Critics Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, among others. The film is now streaming on Netflix.

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Gerima now teaches film at Howard University and continues to make and distribute his own work. His 1993 film, Sankofa, follows a modern-day American Black woman who is transported back in time and becomes a slave. Sankofa — which grossed over $2.5 million — won the Best Cinematography Award at FESPACO and is considered one of Gerima’s best works.

In our three-part series, 70-year-old Gerima talks about what happened when he tried to tell his own stories to a mainstream audience, what keeps the film industry from being held accountable for its singular — and hugely exclusive — products, and why multi-dimensional, humanized protagonists of all colors, ages and genders are so critical to bring to life.

Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me. It’s a real honor to meet you.
Thank you.

Your film is being re-released by Array. Tell me how that came about.
Well, it’s really Ava [DuVernay]. She wanted to support me for my past work and trying to make younger people to revisit my work, to see my work. For me, the linking of my generation — where I come from — with her; it’s symbolically important. For a young person like her to find my work, I’m grateful. Often, the more you don’t access finance to do your films, the more you get lost in the distant past. It’s an experimental idea for me.

Can you talk more about the symbolism? What does it symbolize for you?
You would say I come from a generation of filmmakers — especially those who came in the late 60s, early 70s —where making films away from the industry was not the most popularly accepted proposition. Nevertheless, we did movies. These movies were symbolically confronting the idea of storytelling without the official sanctioning of an industry.

A great many independent filmmakers who felt they do not exist in the cinema were beginning to express themselves. This is a distant past from when Ava arrives into the filmmaking process.

That’s one. The other one is really, she doesn’t need to sponsor me. She doesn’t have any other ulterior motive but to say “thank you” to what I’ve tried.

Your 1993 film Sankofa had a similar response to Selma, which is, “Oh wow, people can make films outside of the industry and they will do very well.” I’m wondering what it’s like for you to see Ava come along and do something similar more than 20 years later, and have essentially the same response from the industry.
When Sankofa came out, I wish there were people like Ava. I was so tired to prove that films outside the box, in the sense of how Blacks or African descendants are represented, [can do well].

When it came out, it exhausted us. My wife, who co-produced the film, [and I] were exhausted in every city. We were fighting for the right to show our films, we were evicted out of mainstream theaters. Right here in this city, in Marina Del Rey, we were with United Artists and they evicted us out of the theater when we were doing the highest box office of any movie in that area.

We were minding our business, showing our film in every city, paying fifty percent of our income, selling their popcorn. In other circumstances, they could be sued, even. It was very unacceptable. In this kind of period, if people like Ava were around with their energy, with vision and courage, I would have made five Sankofa‘s by now.

But that was who you were at the time, it seems like.
Well, let me tell you. Oh, my God. Their energy’s different. For her, the way she struggled to do Selma is unheard of. To take the script, to turn it around to the best of her ability, whatever’s allowed, and make the film. That’s unheard of, for me. Also, they are unlike me and my wife. I think Ava understands business. We jumped into it, because there were no Black producers, there were no Black publicity managers. We just jumped into it.

So you were kicked out of theaters? I mean, did they ever come right out and say a reason for it?
No. [They] threatened me. [The theater manager] says, “You’re burning bridges, man. You’re burning bridges. You’ll never work.” For one whole week, they put us in a theater with a projector glass painted dark.

Yeah. Now, who would believe this? A normal person would not believe this. They covered the — you know, you project, and there’s a window? They had under the window, some dark material.

We’re not even doing any militant stuff, except that we made our films outside this world, from a basement in Washington, in 35[mm].

Again, why in the first place, why [were people] intimidated by this film? What nerve did it touch? I have no answer for that. We were not irrational, the story doesn’t propose irrational anything. It was trying to unearth history that I feel is always neglected. Where Black people are history-makers, that is always displaced and given to a white principal character.

Black people do have normal life, and those stories are good to be told. Even to have the right to tell crazy stories, stupid stories, good stories. The absence of this kinds of choices was my own obsession.

Do you think it has something to do with shame? Not for the Black community, but for the white community.
In New York, a white lady asked me, “This film is blaming white people?” I said to her, “You are insulting me if I have to live forty-something years in this world to someday blame you. You must be crazy.” That’s the last thing in my mind.

Sometimes, this invisible unprocessed demon of slavery ravages both white and Black people in shame and in guilt. I think the Native American issue and slavery continue to hold good Americans hostage. It’s a legacy left for them to work it out. What does the artist have to do? Hopefully this, [where] emotional, divisive forces could be disarmed, processed, exorcised.

Did you have any expectation that things would change after your film did so well? That maybe the film industry would be a little more open-minded, or theaters would be, or audiences would be more open-minded?
Let me tell you, if I had that illusion, I would have stayed in L.A. I don’t believe in that. I think it’s for a few more generations in.

One, unlike many other folks, I’m not entitled to expect America to give me nothing. I’m a foreigner, I came from abroad, I paid my way, I did gardening to go to school, I owe nobody. I was not a student of scholarship, or nobody. I worked my butt off. Washed dishes, et cetera. I’m clear about that. I didn’t expect Hollywood would be changing because of my observation.

The second one is, for me, the arrangement of making white people principal for entry narrative anchor has always destabilized the best of American cinema. The idea of making white principality as a narrative logic itself is racist, in my view. I knew from day one that in this system, unless I drive Miss Daisy, unless I am the butler, unless I am the guy who carries a piano all the way to Casablanca for this white guy… [it’s] this devoted slavery.

In a racially divided society, sooner or later, what I saw is a Black person, they go to a movie, they go to a movie, they go to a movie. At some point they start saying, “Why am I dislocated? Why am I psychologically identifying with white characters that are fully dimensionalized?” Also, “Why am I vicariously experiencing human desires through white activities, through white manifestations?” Sooner or later, it’s a battling ground because human beings do not live their life on the outskirts of what a human experience is. They would like to also look at something that looks like them.

[This is] to tell you I do not accept subservience in anything. I think we have stories we should tell. I think, more than any institution in the world, Hollywood’s product has been the most divisive.

Read Part Two of this interview here