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Transmitting Unrecorded Black Histories: The Documentaries of Haile Gerima

By A.E. Hunt

Actor Oyafunmike Ogunlano is a Black woman standing against a sugarcane plant with a sickle in hand in Haile Gerima’s ‘Sankofa’ (1993). Image courtesy of Array Releasing.

“Did the Ethiopians really defeat the white men at the Battle of Adwa, or was the victory simply boasting?” Haile Gerima asked his father as a young boy. Shouting war songs, and harnessing their traditional art of war skills—“shaking spears and swinging swords"—the Ethiopian patriots “tangled the enemy,” his father assured him. “Anytime an Italian bullet hit them they exclaimed, ‘What flea is this?’” Gerima recreates this exchange in his 1999 documentary on the First Italo-Ethiopian War, Adwa: An African Victory. Over time, Gerima came to understand the drama in the storytelling, the metaphorical meaning of the flea, and the power of generational transmission through the creative arts. His father, Abba Gerima, a historian and playwright from Gonder, dramatized historical events through his plays, in which his son acted and helped advertise. The dramatic elements—chants and folklore that recounted the war—helped enliven the stories in Ethiopian communities across generations, while keeping the historical authenticity intact. Gerima’s father’s dramatizations helped him embrace the truth of Ethiopia’s victory and power: In 1896, Emperor Menelik II’s barefooted forces felled the invading Italian army, equipped with bolt-action rifles, at Adwa.

Haile Gerima’s filmography, like his father’s work, perpetuates historical truths through liberated self-expression. The Ethiopian-born, US-educated filmmaker devoted himself to creating and distributing films independent of the studio system. He became known for his narrative films such as Bush Mama (1979), Ashes and Embers (1982) and Sankofa (1993), which he and his wife, Shirikiana Aina Gerima, self-distributed to Black communities, city to city, earning more than $2 million. By removing his work economy from the pervasive capitalist model of film production and distribution, Gerima has rid his films of colonizing influences. “The only strategy is word of mouth,” Gerima told an ex-student, John L. Jackson Jr., in an interview for Callaloo Vol.33. The press ignored Sankofa when it played at Berlinale in 1993, “But when Black people, by word of mouth, built audiences, everyone from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times took notice. So you can see the power of word of mouth in the Black community.” He used the same model for Adwa, opening the film in his hometown, Washington, DC, and extrapolating from there.

“And I said, ‘How about Louis Armstrong?’ And he said, ‘Do you mean to say a hornblower should be in an encyclopedia?’”

- Sterling Brown

Even for the communities in Gerima’s documentary films, the word of the people prevails over “official” documentation. Wilmington 10, U.S.A – 10,000 (1979), After Winter: Sterling Brown (1985), Imperfect Journey (1994) and Adwa (1999) capture various oral histories and creative transmissions from the US and Ethiopia. Gerima does not intercut the stories and testimonies of his protagonists, as Western documentaries often do, with “substantiating” documents in the form of archival footage, and talking-head “experts.” Instead, he takes the words of the people in front of his camera at face value.

Or, as he does in Wilmington 10, U.S.A – 10,000, he cuts together similar testimonies from the friends and families of the Wilmington 10—the nine Black men and one white woman who were wrongfully convicted of arson and sentenced to 29 years in prison—to evoke their collective power. “The state’s whole case against the Wilmington 10 rested primarily on one person, a witness named Alan Hall, who himself had been arrested a year earlier and charged with the burning of the same grocery store the Wilmington 10 were charged and convicted of burning,” a Wilmington prosecutor tells Gerima in the film. Later, the jury learned that Alan Hall was coached and bribed by Assistant Director Attorney Jay Stroud. In 1969, Wilmington had shut down Black schools, and streamed Black students into white schools, where they experienced constant harassment from white parents. “They put dogs on us. I had to run a mile home,” a girl, who was in eighth grade at the time, says to Gerima, “We had knives pulled out on us.” In 1971, Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned business, following rampant violence by white people in the Black district, was torched, inciting a riot. The wives and mothers of the Wilmington 10 recall the next morning almost identically as Gerima intercuts their retellings. The Wilmington 10 were political prisoners, “persecuted for saying simple truths and for struggling for our future, for our children,” Ben Chavis, one of the Wilmington 10, says in the film. “If you want leadership and want to bring your people out of the darkness, you are subject to go to jail,” his mother, Elizabeth Chavis says in a later scene.

Haile Gerima is a Black filmmaker with short curly hair and a beard. He is seen filming ‘Wilmington 10, U.S.A – 10,000’ (1979). Image courtesy of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Gerima contrasts Wilmington’s struggle with oral histories of the 1898 Wilmington massacre, which many journalists deemed a “race riot.” An older woman tells Gerima: “A band of men dressed and called themselves the ‘Red Shirts’; they rode up in masks to the building in which the Wilmington Daily Record [the city’s only Black newspaper] was published, and they burned it down.” Her neighbor adds, “Negroes defended themselves as well as they could. Some whites were killed, but they were not published like the negroes. They tried to conceal the riot. You can’t go down to the library [to] get any information about it.” Elders like them are the only repositories of the community’s unrecorded histories, and Gerima, through his films, preserves them. Wilmington 10 also engages with other political prisoners in the US, chiefly Assata Shakur, through a rare and lengthy interview that Gerima filmed, incredibly enough, in the same year she escaped from a maximum-security unit in the Clinton (New York) Correctional Facility for Women. She tells Gerima she’s supposed to be stuck here for “life, plus 30 years, plus 30 months, plus 30 days for contempt because I wouldn’t stand for the judge.” As with all of his interviewees, Gerima does not identify Shakur until the very end of the film. Unlike news media and traditional talking-head documentaries, Gerima does not repeatedly introduce professional titles to influence how seriously viewers should take what a given person has to say.

After Winter: Sterling Brown, is invaluable for simply introducing the audience to the eponymous Black American poet, who has rarely been captured on screen, and for having him share his thoughts and stories uninterrupted over the course of the film’s brief runtime of just under an hour. Compared to Wilmington 10, in which Gerima liberally uses zooms, filming, for example, an interviewee from the other side of a highway, After Winter is stylistically restrained, but is all about the poet’s words. The self-described “minor poet” and “major teacher,” Sterling Brown criticizes the country’s historians: “I was working with [Carter G.] Woodson on his encyclopedia, and he had Samuel Armstrong, the white philanthropist, Civil War veteran in there. And I said, ‘How about Louis Armstrong?’ And he said, ‘Do you mean to say a hornblower should be in an encyclopedia? And I said, ‘Louis Armstrong has done more for our people than Samuel Armstrong,’ at which he laughed… In other words, they are not cultural historians.” He also criticizes the Harlem Renaissance for “trying to see Africa in Harlem. “These gals come out with bananas around their waist, and shake. For ten cents, they could come to Times Square, up to Africa. Ain’t nobody in there been closer than Hoboken to Africa. Duke [Ellington] went to Africa and deepened his stuff. But it was all a belly-twisting Africa, a hip-twisting Africa, like Elvis Presley the African, the whole business was sexual looseness, and that [to them] was Africa.”

“You write for the worker. You write to embarrass a politician. Then you end up becoming part of that cannibalistic culture that you yourself are dying from. Independence as a filmmaker means trying to keep those things at bay.”

- Haile Gerima

In 1968, before venturing into filmmaking, Gerima moved from Gonder, Ethiopia to attend the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, where a Garveyite woman, a janitor at the school, called him out, “How can you be from Ethiopia and come to learn theater from the white man, when in fact you are the originator of theater and culture?” In his interview with John L. Jackson Jr., Decolonizing the Filmic Mind, Gerima concedes, “At the time, I was a completely colonized person.” Falling into film at UCLA, he felt this medium would not perpetuate his “subjugated mind.” Liberated expression is inherently revolutionary, but revolutionary art and attacks on the “system” are not inherently liberated. As Gerima explains to Jackson Jr., “You find yourself trying to write for the system, trying to write for the people. You write for the worker. You write to embarrass a politician. Then you end up becoming part of that cannibalistic culture that you yourself are dying from. Independence as a filmmaker means trying to keep those things at bay.” Prioritizing self-expression over protest, he eludes the trappings of typical “resistance films,” which merely lash out at the system and often lose their creative identities. When Gerima upends documentary tropes, his work manifests itself as, first, an expression of his natural cinematic language, and secondly as a symbol of revolt. In fact, his films defy most revolutionary and anti-colonialist categorizations laid down by the film distribution and exhibition industrial complex, which is perhaps why they haven’t received mainstream recognition in the US until now. He received the “Vantage Award'' from the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles for helping “to contextualize and challenge dominant narratives around cinema”; the museum just launched an elaborate retrospective, entitled “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and his Comrades,” which runs through November 14. However, Black communities and word of mouth have always sustained Gerima’s films through the years, not the patronage of white institutions.

Farmworkers in Gonder, Ethiopia, sort hay in Haile Gerima's 'Imperfect Journey' (1994). Image courtesy of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Gerima returned to Ethiopia in 1974 to make his narrative film Harvest 3,000 Years, and again in 1994 and 1999, respectively, for Imperfect Journey and Adwa: An African Victory. For Imperfect Journey, Gerima wandered around Gonder to gauge what the locals thought of life under the EDRPF [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front], the new government that overthrew the infamous and longstanding military junta known as the Derg Regime. The BBC commissioned the film, and Gerima traveled with Ryszard Kapunski, a Polish journalist. But despite the major network involvement, all collaborators, according to the filmmaker in voiceover, “agreed to make a film whereby Africans speak for themselves.” Gerima also maintains his distinctive style: zooms, nonlinear editing, and sparsely-used thirds.

The EDPRF had divided and politicized the country on ethnic lines, clogging the flow of healthy debate. An anonymous, masked man in the film tells Gerima, “The people of Gonder, regardless of their ethnic origins, have always lived in harmony. Take me as an example: I’m part Eritrean, part Tigrean and part Amhara. Now, because of my ethnic origins, I know some friends do not share secrets with me… Here in Gonder, we now live in fear.” In Imperfect Journey, Gerima circulates and preserves the words of a people who have been silenced by the government. To uphold illusions of free speech, rallies, rebellious newspapers and foreign media are allowed in the capital. But the government has otherwise stifled local word of mouth. The film ends optimistically, though, with a spontaneous run-in with a group of young people marching, spreading the word of peace. “We march here from Eritrea, a march that will be all around the world.”

Retracing the steps of Emperor Menelik II, Gerima finds the history of the Battle of Adwa securely preserved in the names of Ethiopian buildings, folklore, and kids chanting against the Italian army, “Ward them off, repel him away. He is a stillborn freak… he is the offspring of scattered lice eggs!” Empress Taitu directed her own cadre, some 30,000 warriors, and was said to have “Smashed [the Italian army] into oblivion with her cannon,” an expression repeated by many others throughout the film. At the time, no other African victory had culminated in independence. Ethiopia’s victory was an enduring blow to Europe’s colonial power and instilled anxiety in colonial capitals everywhere, eventually inspiring the national liberation movements of the ‘60s. Adwa begins and ends with two little boys holding hands while perusing historical Ethiopian paintings. One of the boys is nearly blind, so his friend describes the art and its context to keep him engaged. “Why do you help him?” Gerima asks. “I help him see,” He responds. “The things he does not comprehend or understand, he asks me, and I explain it to him in a very nice way so he will understand.” Gerima tells stories just as unaffectedly, inspiring audiences to pass them on in their own voice.

Aaron E. Hunt is an endeavoring filmmaker, cameraperson in production and writer with bylines in Filmmaker, Criterion, Sight & Sound, Film Comment, American Cinematographer, MUBI Notebook and more. He is also vice president of Dedza Films, a distributor for and by underrepresented filmmakers.