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.
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.