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Haile Gerima Talks 'Teza,' 'Sankofa,' and His Concern for the Future of Black Indie Cinema (Part 2)

by Jasmin Tiggett
August 21, 2012 10:47 AM
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Haile Gerima at the 65th Venice Film Festival

Shadow & Act's candid conversation with legendary filmmaker Haile Gerima continues below. Here, we discuss more of his thoughts on cinema today.

And in case you missed it, find Part 1 of the interview HERE.

S&A: While you were at UCLA you were part of the influential LA Rebellion film movement. Tell me about the long-term impact that group has had.

HG: It really taught me how to do everything. We taught each other. We worked on each other's films. More than the school, I would say I learned a lot from that group about filmmaking. People like Charles Burnett and Larry Clark, they had a big impact on my own work. It was also the idea of independence. I think that spirit is very difficult for a lot of people, to take the journey my kind of filmmaking takes. Going away from the mainstream industry and believing in something and then making it a reality over time, that kind of difficult journey - it is that background that I had with my fellow filmmakers at school that has kept me going, that whole idea that we don't have to wait for somebody to tell our story, we can do it ourselves. We have to tell our own story or we’ll continue to complain about how a movie is done. So that spirit is what has helped me through all these years.

S&A: You’ve made over 10 films since then. Do you still have the same fire for the art and business of filmmaking that you did when you started?

HG: In terms of my own independent film work, I'm more inspired than ever. But the film business is another discussion. I continue to hold the view that I had when I was a student, the choice I made as an independent filmmaker to find money internationally and continue to make my own films - the films of my selection, my choosing - even if it takes me longer. When I did Sankofa, waiting nine years to find the money did affect me. Now I do not know when the money will come, but I continue to work on the script and make documentaries while I wait for feature films that I've been planning to produce. So the style, it remains the same.

S&A: What do you make of the current state of black cinema, and/or the black artist today? 

HG: Well I think the problem now is the black art is completely undermined by the black bourgeoisie. The black middle class here or in Africa or Brazil or the Caribbean is really nurtured by white supremacy, and their whole cultural taste is of an occupied mentality. Things that undermine the history of black people’s struggle is rampant and unchallenged. Even on the political spectrum, you can get away with exploiting black people and nobody takes you to task. And the black art is affected by that. There is the silent African American art that will surge, but now it's underneath, it's covered by the benign art work, the fake hip-hop fashion show that parades. It’s a very loud, colorful charade that has undermined the struggling aspects of black culture, and in terms of translating the daily reality of black people, it’s toothless.

So for me, I think [art] exists in a cave. I am in a cave. I have my own editing place, but I'm not powerful enough to amass the resources to keep doing movies every two or three years. Had there been a black power I would've made 10 Sankofas by now. And so it's a very difficult testing time, but it doesn't mean it's not brewing. That's the deceptive part. There is silent brewing of a black expression that explodes every 15 or 20 years. Inevitably there will be something coming up, because black people are not empowered. Many are unemployed. Especially at a time when there is a black President, they don't even have a right to complain because it could shift the political situation towards a very hostile power structure. It's like having a Black God and he can't do nothing for you. And you've always waited for Black God and he finally came to earth, but he doesn't want to offend the majority power structure. It's a very strange time.

S&A: Regarding the lack of black presence or power in the film industry, what's the solution to that, in your view?

HG: I think the solution is the realization of each other’s need, meaning if you're into film you need to create producers, you need to create distributors. You can't just be filmmakers. If any young person is going to do better than us old goats, it's by creating a communal coexistence with the legal part and the business part of black intelligentsia. I want to see black kids now in filmmaking come to me with the survival kit, and go to Hollywood even, anywhere. Don’t go just as a filmmaker, but have your lawyer, have your business, and go enter into any place in the world as a business person without being a token. It's not new - black people in the 1930s and 1940s had their own theaters, had their own distribution. But I think since integration the idea of one's own economic infrastructure just dissipated.

"To me, entertainment is really the new plantation. It's the new sugar, the new cotton, that black people work for somebody else to be richer than them."

What is needed now is to be inclusive, to go and enter into a relationship with anybody nationally or internationally, but as a business with self-preservation, and not to go dissolve and die working for somebody else. To me, entertainment is really the new plantation. It's the new sugar, the new cotton, that black people work for somebody else to be richer than them. So I'm saying listen, I think you should build your own infrastructure and enter into business with anybody. That would be new to see in black America.

S&A: Thinking about the struggles of black people, it brings to mind your film Bush Mama, which looks at poverty, unemployment, the criminal justice system. What do you make of the fact that a film like that, made almost 40 years ago, is still so relevant in terms of the issues it tackles?

HG: That’s why I say to believe in the story. To this day when I watch Bush Mama, I'm in tears. Not because of my talent, it's the talent of the community; but those things were real to me when I was a student. I see all my films as a staircase of emotional evolution. They have my dreams, my nightmares, my wishes, my fantasies, my rage, and so they're never obsolete. I just came back from Africa [screening] my film with an audience, and it's as current as anything, but I didn't plan it. I was responding to the time as a black man and how I felt excluded by the system that was prevailing. And many people feel that now. And so to me, it goes back into not doing movies for anybody else. Say this is a story I want to tell before I pass from this earth, and the film becomes relevant, however imperfect technically it is.

S&A: Tell me about what you’re working on now.

HG: For the past 20 years I've been filming Ethiopian patriots who fought during the Italian War, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. I have begun to assemble most of the interviews, and look for funding to do more shooting. Although most of the people have passed, there's documentary footage in Europe and in Russia that I need to get hold of. I need to also go to the battlefield and shoot certain reenactments. So I'm now preparing to go back to Italy to do more fundraising.

And the other one is called The Maroons. It's a documentary film that I've been working on for the past 10 years. It's about African-Americans who were not part of the Underground Railroad, but who were actually dubbed as Maroons, meaning runaway Africans, from the first day of slavery in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, all the way to Oklahoma and Mexico. So this is an untold history, because it's really about black people who ran away on their own, didn’t wait to be freed, which I think is very important to tell because most of the time the history is told that somebody freed black people. And it’s kind of negative, because it paralyzes the capacity of young people of all races to not be told the virtue of all human beings - that is, resisting and fighting back. Nobody just gives in to slavery. So I have over 100 hours of interviews with scholars and descendants who are doing reenactments of their ancestors in Texas and Florida and North Carolina.

S&A: Most audiences know you best for your 1993 film Sankofa, which also deals with African resistance to slavery. We’re now hearing of an upcoming film dealing with slavery, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s a different story of course, but have you followed the project at all and if so, what are your thoughts on it?

HG: Well you know, Tarantino is a spoiled little white kid. He can do any movie he wants and nobody can do anything about it. But the true story of your question is that black people need to tell their history. Very few films are made by black people about slavery. That itself is a crime because slavery is a very important historical event that has held our people hostage. Forget white people’s role in it. In the end what's important is black people remain and live with the scars and psychological issues. It's our task to find whatever budget we have to make movies, because the more we make movies, the more we release our people from the psychologically incarcerating historical legacy. It's nobody else's business but to ours to do it. The more we do it, the more we heal ourselves. The more somebody does it for us, the more it becomes as cumbersome as Lincoln freeing a black person. Because if you never did anything for your own freedom, you're not worth a human being in my view.

So it would be like honoring racist people to go into their agenda when they feel like doing a film on slavery. I just say, you can do anything you want - you have the money, you have the banks, you have everything. You can make a movie about my mother. I have no right to my own mother’s story. But with everything I have, I'm going to make a film and show you who my mother is to me. So I really do not care what the white world is doing. I care about black people building the monument on slavery, so the artist overcomes something deeper and the people, collectively through the artist, overcome.

S&A: It’s a tall order, it seems, what we’re trying to achieve with black indie film. When you think of how to define success as a filmmaker, what does that look like for you?

HG: Success is really when you create a space, a piece of art, and people come in and say, that's my story - when they claim it, which happens to me a lot. When Sankofa came out it was an imperfect film, but a lot of black people came and hugged me and cried, and some even said that's my story. In fact, we used to be evicted from theater to theater, and there was this one old lady in Harlem who used to call people and tell them the next place where it was showing. When I first met her in the theater she walked towards me with a cane just sobbing. And she says, “Don't think you made this with your power. There’s more to the story going through you.” And she just kissed me and I knew what she was saying, that I was a vessel to things that meant a lot to her.

I may not have a claim of how distributed I am all over the world, but what comes to me are all the black people who hugged me after doing Sankofa. That to me was the biggest capital I ever received, and it's emotional, it's very visceral. It makes you forget the hardest journey it took to get the film out. So when a film is claimed by people, to me is a success.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Many thanks to Haile Gerima for speaking with Shadow & Act. 

Find Teza, and the other films in Gerima's catalogue HERE.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    


  • Masha Dowell | August 30, 2012 5:21 PMReply

    My FAVORITE part of this interview:

    HG: Well you know, they start and they disappear, and the reason is because they don't enter into joint relationships. Most, especially the young filmmakers, do not see strength in communal or collective existence. They just think they're going to conquer the world as individuals. There is no world like that. In cinema it's always, even in Hollywood, a collective surge. A group of filmmakers enter and take over power. And so individual efforts do exist, which I've seen left and right, but they do not understand the collective, the communal, the importance of working together. And when you don't work together you can't emerge as a force. It becomes what some call a “lonely struggle” and individual self-destruction.

    What I’m seeing is, one comes and establishes a name in Sundance or somewhere, which is not much for me because you have to go into the second tier of the struggle. It’s in the second level something is tested, if it's consistent stylistically, artistically, ideologically, culturally speaking. In the second film is when it begins to mushroom. This system knows how to cherry pick black people. It’s like affirmative action – once a year, one is recognized. But what has to occur is self-emergence so if they ignore you, you don't have to disappear. There has to be consistent emergence of two or three films – narratively, stylistically, consistently demonstrating you are here to go on. And on that kind of basis, I'm not seeing much. I'm just waiting to see.


  • Masha Dowell | August 30, 2012 5:24 PM

    I randomly noticed this when I checked out this film, "Last Night." --- several of the people from that film work together...

    I like how Ava is doing AFFRM too...

    This is really a WONDERFUL interview...

  • Nicole | August 25, 2012 8:12 PMReply

    When he talks about telling our own story...sometimes I think we don't want to tell our story. We're too busy trying to become a part of "their" story. And then when a filmmaker dares to tell "our" story...ALL of our story...the harshest criticism they face is usually from their own.

  • Agent K | August 26, 2012 8:37 PM

    I agree. Nobody wants to be creators but apart of the creation.

  • Nicole | August 25, 2012 8:01 PMReply

    This interview was so full of "quotables"...I don't know where to begin. Excellent S & A.

  • bondgirl | August 25, 2012 7:39 PMReply

    "Well I think the problem now is the black art is completely undermined by the black bourgeoisie. The black middle class here or in Africa or Brazil or the Caribbean is really nurtured by white supremacy, and their whole cultural taste is of an occupied mentality" Agreed. This is probably the first interview I will actually archive for future reference...good job!

  • Nique | August 24, 2012 11:53 PMReply

    Brother Gerima, you should have an email address on your site for people that want to support your vision. God Bless.

  • Nique | August 24, 2012 11:47 PMReply

    Haile Gerima, Ida B. Wells, Jim Brown, Jack Johnson, Marcus Garvey -- God Bless

  • Donella | August 24, 2012 4:47 PMReply

    "...Well you know, Tarantino is a spoiled little white kid. He can do any movie he wants and nobody can do anything about it..." Lord Jesus, somebody finally said it out loud.

  • ALM | August 22, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    "You can make a movie about my mother. I have no right to my own mother’s story."

    <<This. The Nina Simone biopic and Simone's response to the biopic is the most recent confirmation of this point.

  • Banta | August 22, 2012 9:46 PM


  • Priss | August 22, 2012 10:08 AMReply

    Boss! A few things. The Maroons documentary gives me goosebumps. Seems aFFRM is doing some of what he's talking about with respect to Black distribution and being more than filmmakers. The kicker is calling out Tarantino and comrades for what it is! Boss! Great that Shadow and Act posted this in two parts. Prime interview.

  • justsaying | August 26, 2012 10:07 PM

    @Wow, What I respond to is not necessarily "negative" as you say or small but rather things that draw my attention. I didn't find fault in Tambay's comment. Do I need to point out what I think is excellent or what I understand? No. Are you assuming that just because I do not list the "positives" that I have not acknowledged them? Yes. You can't make assumptions about my character to fill in the blanks and make it work for you. Maybe you need to reread my comment. Just because I'm saying it now doesn't mean I think it is new or hasn't been said before. But if it's still an issue, it can and will be brought up again. I did process the "good" as you say in previous comments and informed Nadia a bit about what I do to "help" since Nadia was wondering. In the film festival thread my first comment expressed uncertainty because too many things seemed alarming to me. Nothing is above criticism or questioning. Are we on this board to give praise ONLY? And does a question or suggestion need to be buried in compliments/praise for consideration? My comments expressing that I agree are not always "yeah but" so that's incorrect. I responded to this thread in conjunction with the goal of telling/sharing/distributing many films from the Black diaspora. This 2-part interview promotes community, sustainability, and prolificacy. So yes, 2 or 3 films is not enough for me. I want more. I don't understand how that is throwing shade? I appreciate AaFFRM's efforts and mentioned a bit of what I do since my concern for more is viewed as a disregard for what is set in place or previously accomplished. It's unfortunate that it is viewed that way. So sensitive...and ready for war. Thanks to all for the convos!! Taking leave for now... onward and upward!

  • WOW | August 26, 2012 9:07 PM

    @ JUSTSAYING, let me see if I can give you a little insight into what others are trying to tell you. First, many of your comments lack balance. Priss defined your comments as a form of "snipe". I believe she's pointing out your tendency to focus on small negative features of a comment or post, as opposed to championing the positive aspects. If you're honest to yourself and others, you will notice that as recently as yesterday, you found fault in Tambay's comment as apposed to pointing out what you understood. If you would have added those points to your comment, then it wouldn't read like a snipe or as Nadia said, "saying what we [Tambay] all already know quite well. Today, Nadia gave you feedback, but again, instead of processing it (looking for the good in it) you pooh-pooh it and said it was her problem/issue. Furthermore, as another example of your propensity to snipe and wallow in negativity, in the post on the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival, your whole "opinion"/comment focused on what the host's and the festival was NOT doing right. And when you do decided to give a little praise (on any issue or comment) it's usual given as an afterthought, or it's followed by a "YEAH BUT" which has the affect of watering down your compliment. Case in point, in this thread, in your opening comment, you threw a shade on Affirm, but now you back saying how much you appreciate their efforts. Justing saying, just something to think about. Add a little balance in your comments because your history proceeds you.

  • justsaying | August 26, 2012 7:55 PM

    @Nadia, No. I am not saying what you already know as if it's new. I'm just a *new* person saying it *here*... And if you have a problem with me saying it, well that's your issue. Fyi, I support AaFFRM. I see the films that are released and tell ***general viewers** who don't have a clue about the film industry and their movement about the films they release in a **nondidactic way** so that these viewers still feel empowered when they go see films released by AaFRM and support them for their films/stories. Don't get it twisted. I am all about growth and not stopping, which means I will spread the word about AaFRM AND still back the need for MORE and challenge what is already established for the sake of improvement...I like this tune...Why can't I jam to it with you and yours? Together we are strong right? I'm just saying...

  • Nadia | August 26, 2012 5:35 PM

    @justsaying Yes, we need more. We cannot stop. We're all hungry, yes. You're saying what we all already know quite well as if it's new. Sing a different tune. Start by celebrating what we do have, RE AFFRM. Or better yet, ask yourself what YOU can do to bring "more" and fill that "hunger" that everyone's been feeling for 100 years. I'm just saying...

  • justsaying | August 26, 2012 4:16 PM

    We need more, and we cannot stop! You're tight. Snipe down who? PLEASE. Let your patience run thin and weary.

  • Priss | August 26, 2012 3:52 PM

    Uh, nah. Unfortunately the way you SOUND is determined by those who are subjected to what you're "JustSaying." which unfortunately for us, is so often not much. Patience with people who snipe down others on these boards wearing thin. Won't be back to read whatever pithy retort you scramble up. Just know your posts cause a daily eyebroll of annoyance.

  • Justsaying | August 26, 2012 3:20 PM

    @Priss, nah I sound hungry! Hungry for more.... We need more!

  • PRISS | August 26, 2012 10:28 AM

    @JusSaying: You sound insane. Re-read Gerima and get a grip on your constant sniping. F&ck, you're annoying.

  • Justsaying | August 25, 2012 1:59 PM

    @Ash they only release what 2 films a year? I commend them but we need more!!

  • BANTA | August 22, 2012 9:47 PM

    Agreeing on all points. Prime.

  • Ash | August 22, 2012 6:39 PM

    Co-sign on AFFRM already doing some of the collective work he is talking about. people!

  • Christopher | August 22, 2012 9:58 AMReply

    One of the Great underrated filmmakers! Great interview! We need more like him.

  • Neziah | August 22, 2012 2:28 AMReply

    This is exactly what I needed to hear.

  • justsaying | August 21, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    More gold...

  • saadiyah | August 21, 2012 6:42 PMReply

    Excellent interviews!! Thank you S&A for introducing me to this divine man. I'm now frantically searching for his movies! Maybe one day I'll get up the nerve to tell my own story.

  • BluTopaz | August 21, 2012 5:41 PMReply

    I'm surprised there aren't more comments about this amazing interview; thank you for posting. I enjoyed reading his thoughts about healing through telling our own stories. He speaks a lot to all the frustrations people are feeling in the past few years, esp. with "You can make a movie about my mother. I have no right to my own mother’s story. But with everything I have, I'm going to make a film and show you who my mother is to me."

  • Justsaying | August 24, 2012 9:40 PM

    A lot of thought provoking stuff on here is overlooked and ignored...

  • imhotep | August 21, 2012 5:14 PMReply

    a vitamin for my soul. thanks for the interview.

  • Jerome | August 21, 2012 8:29 PM


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