To celebrate Black history month, Ava DuVernay’s indie distribution, arts and advocacy collective Array has produced “28 Days of ‘Sankofa,'” an event series where select cinemas, universities and festival locations throughout the U.S. are screening Ethiopian director Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa” for free, one screening for each day of February. In addition, Array created a free learning companion designed to help viewers process the weight of what they’re watching.
Gerima is best known as one of the leading members of the L.A. Rebellion, which was a movement of artists who studied film at UCLA from the late 1960s to early 1980s. Along with figures like Julie Dash and Charles Burnett, Gerima made a name for himself with movies that provided a Black alternative to the style of classical Hollywood. “Sankofa,” which was nominated for the coveted Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1993, is his most widely seen film. Following a Black American model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) who finds herself transported back in time and kidnapped into the transatlantic slave trade, the film studies the relationship between Black liberation and connecting to diasporic roots.
For decades, Gerima also taught at Howard University. But he’s found that participating in the more grassroots style of education Array offers is more his style.
“I feel now that film teaching in a university context is hopeless,” he told Variety. “I think physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics can be taught. But art in a university context is really obsolete. I found that I could benefit better to young people who want to learn whatever I could offer in a much more liberated context, without university pressure. It’s an entirely different dynamic.”
Given the sheer amount of time Gerima has spent associated with universities, his position on them may come as a surprise. But his aversion to formal education systems makes sense when you consider the reality of the L.A. Rebellion — their work was not supported by the institution.
“My life at UCLA was a life of war,” he said. “I was asserting my own cultural background, my own mindset, my own narrative. So it was a life of war. Mainstream Hollywood is a very exclusive industry, especially at the time my friends and I were coming up. Blacks, Native Americans and Latinos were graduating into a desert, while white kids graduated into an industry. Not that all of them would be [successful] in it, but at least the type of hostility we were met by was not their fate. So I decided to be an independent filmmaker.”
Gerima and his wife, fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Shirikiana Aina Gerima, resolved to find work and use their income to finance their own films, because they “didn’t want to eat film money.” Thus, Gerima decided to make his living as a professor, an experience he found both profound and painful.
“You see Black kids who just want to tell a story, and the world that awaits them,” he said. “Students that come from Oakland, Chicago, Ohio, Mississippi. They want to tell a story in a world where your story is a crime, your story is excluded, your story is repressed under the official story. Storytelling is the beginning of conflict and war. I know that, even if I didn’t tell my students. And knowing that makes me feel sad, oftentimes. Because I see a good script coming out of a student, and then I say, ‘Where is it going? Where is she going to go to practice? Where is she going to be embraced?’ It’s a turbulent existence. At Howard, I did my best, but these young people, they’re also my own teachers. What to do, what not to do, I learned from my students.”
Now, Gerima is focused on applying that learning to a masterclass he calls “Liberated Territory.” He’s offered a few iterations of it, most recently at Array’s campus in Los Angeles in 2021. Over the course of five days, he taught three sections: the art and craft of screenplay, cinematography and film directing. Students from all artistic backgrounds were welcome to apply, and Gerima crafted lessons around African films like Ousmane Sembène’s “Black Girl” and Med Hondo’s “Soleil Ô” to discuss the liberating potential of the medium.
His goal is to continue developing the curriculum and eventually offer the masterclass in his own space in Washington D.C. His time in L.A. “reaffirmed [his] idea of this individual wealth people have within them. They are the birthers of their own narrative logic.”
Perhaps the most significant element of Gerima’s partnership with Array was the distributor’s decision to re-release “Sankofa.” Before 2021, the film had rarely been seen since its debut. Since they weren’t getting any support from showbiz, Gerima and Aina had acted as their own distributors, organizing screenings in different cities as often as they could. But they didn’t have a sustainable method to make the film accessible to audiences until DuVernay stepped in, having seen Gerima’s work years before and finding it formative to her own filmmaking. Before “Sankofa” made it to Netflix last year, Gerima had given up hope that he’d ever have a consistent way to share his work.
“Until I met Ava, who proposed her vision, her dream, and became my die-hard supporter, I didn’t think there was such an outlet for [‘Sankofa’],” he said. “In fact, we distributed the film, and we got tired of the war and fighting we had to wage to show it. We really stopped showing it out of defeat. So her coming now and resurrecting ‘Sankofa’ into another life is a complete pleasure for me.”
Around the time of “Sankofa’s” re-release, Gerima was honored with the Academy Museum’s inaugural Vantage Award. Between the Academy and Netflix, 2021 gave Gerima more mainstream attention than he’d ever had before. But his values have stayed consistent. He prefers to focus on Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe, the space he and Aina have owned and operated in Washington since 1998, and “Black Lions, Roman Wolves,” the five-hour documentary he’s been working on for 40 years as a tribute to his father and a study of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the ‘30s. Everything else is noise.
“Well, I don’t know Netflix. I’m a very backward person. I don’t even possess a cell phone. I don’t know nobody. All I know is Ava,” he laughed. “I don’t know Netflix. So I can talk about Ava. And I think the industry could never embrace me. I’m not a decoy to cover up the guilt, the disastrous, pressing history of the mainstream industry. So for me, I’m here thanks to Ava, who is pushing my work. But I go back to my cave. I go back to my cave in Washington, back to my own editing room. And I continue to edit my own films that have no glamorous economic background behind them, but are very important stories for my own personage. So that’s why I do that.”
For information on “28 Days of ‘Sankofa,'” including the screening schedule, visit ArrayPlay.com. To access the free learning companion, visit Sankofa101.org.