Halle Gerima's Uphill Journey to Decolonize Film
In an industry hostile toward black representation, Hollywood wouldn't be expected to embrace a documentary about African fugitive slaves in the 1660s who fought and gained their freedom in the Americas. But director and professor of film at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Halie Gerima believes he can make films without having to follow the “formula” dictated by Hollywood. And his latest project, The Maroons, a documentary chronicling the story of Africans, forcibly brought to the US as slaves, but determined not to accept the yoke of human bondage, has sought to reconnect African Americans with the past traditionally overlooked in the film industry.
“This subject matter regarding the Maroons feeds into my own independence,” said Gerima. “These black people took refuge in the rugged mountains and caves. They fought for freedom without the help of Abraham Lincoln or any other white people endorsing their struggle. “[In fact], they were even neglected by the Underground Railroad where several whites participated in helping blacks escape slavery. “Anything,” Gerima continued, “that shows whites had a role in liberating blacks like the abolitionists - it becomes a favorite story told and retold. But there were blacks that came from Africa and started guerrilla warfare against slave owners in the 1500s. These are equally important pieces of American history that need to be told.”
Born in Ethiopia in 1946, Gerima came from a large family of ten children, and storytelling was an integral part of his community. “I am a product of a playwright father and a teacher mother from a small town called Gondar. I grew up under his tutelage and sometimes performed as an extra in his plays. He often wrote plays against Mussolini’s Italian army invading Ethiopia.”
It’s important, Gerima says, that stories about general African folklore told to him as a child around the fireplace not only paint an accurate picture of history, but also bring the story into now.
“When I grew up in Ethiopia watching the cowboy films, the Native Americans always scared me. Every movie I saw they were the savages that killed innocent, well-meaning, hard-working white people. I was on the side of the white people because I’d been brainwashed into thinking whites were the good guys. So I know what movies can do within my own lifetime.”
Gerima, who emigrated to the US in 1967, first trained as an actor at Addis Ababa University and later studied acting and directing at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Illinois. During his academic years in Chicago, he learned to act in works by Western playwrights but regretfully admits he gained no significant material to advance the black experience in cinema.
“I was gullible because I wanted badly to go to America and study acting. It was not what I anticipated. I had to ask myself if [black actors] were born to be extras because that seemed to be the only roles offered them. In his view, black actors were nothing but “extras of white Romeo and Juliet scripts.” This explained Gerima puts black actors in a position where they come face-to face with white supremacy-racism in American film. It’s so bad that it reaches a point you begin to question yourself whether you’re a human being?”
As an actor, Gerima grew frustrated over his lack of creative control. He realized he had to find a medium that gave him artistic independence. Gerima later transferred to the Theater Department at UCLA where once again he faced similar racial barriers that he’d dealt with while at Goodman. “I had the same problem at UCLA because again I was facing the white idea of theater. Basically, this means white people are the world and we blacks simply are extras in their world.”
Despite refusing to accept this inherently flawed concept deeply rooted in white supremacy, Gerima credits enrolling in the UCLA film as somewhat playing a role in shaping his political consciousness and vision of cinema. It was around this time Gerima immersed himself in books about Pan-Africanism the likes of Black Panther leader George Jackson and activist Angela Davis. He recalls one guy on a casting set who had noticed his Angela Davis button on his shirt telling him bluntly, “Listen here! Do you want to be an actor? “Well…” pointing to the button, “All that militancy stuff won’t feed you.” Gerima observed how white filmmakers use African American actors “to throw confusion” on what he’d dubbed a “perpetual silent contradiction.” The only time white filmmakers like anything black is when it appeals to their liberal needs he said.
“I was not interested in acting, and I’d made a vow never will I act again. Because it is not consistent with my beliefs.”
He was determined to set his path without “white or even black interest groups driving the engine.” While at UCLA, Gerima helped spearhead an entire movement that eschewed conventional narrative film for a universal view of the craft. It was called the L.A. Rebellion. “We all felt that we had nothing in common with this Eurocentric paradigm of representation or theater or movies,” he said. “And so we were opting to look at Latin American films, African films, Iranian films, trying to find our own identity and empower the very stories we set out to want to tell.” Once he completed the Master’s Program in Film at UCLA, Gerima was ready to leave Los Angeles, but more importantly, he wanted no part of the Hollywood industry.
“I didn’t want to stay in Hollywood. In fact, at this point, I didn’t care too much about anything to do with Hollywood. I was not born to accept the terms that limit black actors to stereotypical roles.” In 1982, Gerima founded Mypheduh Films Distribution Company. He’s mostly known for his award-nominated film Sankofa, but his work also caught the eye of Selma director Ava DuVernay, who plans to rerelease Ashes & Embers (1982), a film about an African American Vietnam veteran “wrestling with a turbulent and chaotic political climate to make a future for himself”—screening for the movie starts February 25.
Gerima continues to distribute and promote his own films, including his most recent festival success, Teza (2008), which won the Jury and Best Screenplay awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Although just one month short of turning 70-years-old, the veteran filmmaker still has plenty of gas left in his tank to do more.
“I’m actually making a documentary on the Ethiopian-Italian war. It’s taking me 20 years to do this film. It’s my father’s injection into my psyche that influences me to embark on such projects.”
He reminds his students at Howard that the Second World War didn’t begin when Hitler's army marched into Austria or Poland. But rather it started when the Italian's invaded his native home in 1935 and poisoned millions of his people.
Said Gerima, “Ethiopians died like Jews in Nazi, Germany. It’s why I’m living to make sure I tell the untold history of all black people.”