Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa,” the story of a black woman who is transported through time to experience the horrors of slavery, is opening to rave reviews.
Times reviewer Kevin Thomas hails the film, which opened May 12 at the United Artists Del Amo in Torrance and the United Artists Cinema in Marina del Rey, as “a powerful indictment of slavery that summons up ancient African beliefs.” Hal Hinson of the Washington Post lauds it as a “beautiful fable about awakening to the lessons of the past.”
More noteworthy, perhaps, than this rousing critical response is that Gerima distributes and promotes his films himself through Mypheduh Films Inc., a distribution company for low-budget, independent films that he and his wife of 12 years, Sirikiana Aina (who is also a filmmaker), established in 1984.
“We took control of the distribution of our films because most distributors believe black people only want to see shoot-'em-up movies, and the deals I was offered were exploitative,” the 49-year-old filmmaker says during an interview at a Westside deli.
“So, we came up with our own system, and this is how it works: When we plan to open the movie in a city, we prepare by making phone calls to the black community and telling people, ‘If you want to see this movie in your town, call 10 people by phone,’ ” says Gerima, whose films will soon be available on video.
“In each city we have an employed coordinator, and the contract we offer theaters who book the film stipulates that we be allowed time between each show for discussion.
“ ‘Sankofa’ is our first success using this methodology,” adds Gerima, who is on a two-year sabbatical from Howard University in Washington where he has taught filmmaking for 19 years.
“Prior to this we had been booking our films in art film theaters, and were failing to reach the African American community that could make the film a success--we weren’t aware that art houses alienate the African American community. So, we went to the elders of the African American community in D.C., and they arranged for us to have use of a theater for one week. The film got a huge response--we played to full houses for 11 weeks. We then took the film to Boston and Baltimore, and using the revenue from those screenings, took it to 25 more cities. At this point, we’ve taken in more than $2 million.”
John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks how films are performing for the industry, comments that “this sort of thing used to be done much more frequently, but the market has become a lot more competitive and it’s a tough deal for independents now.” Krier adds: “Bruce Brown distributed ‘The Endless Summer’ himself, for instance, and Warren Miller handles his ski films, but generally it’s not a wise thing to attempt because you need a proven success to get in the door of most theaters.
“And, it’s doubly difficult with a film like ‘Sankofa,’ because there’s a dearth of theaters geared toward the black community. That may soon change, though, because Magic Johnson is planning to open a chain of such theaters.”
These difficult odds don’t daunt Gerima, who proudly announces that his film has already played in Ghana and London and is slated to open in Jamaica and Brazil later this year.
“We’ve built up a good momentum, but it’s still hard finding usable theaters because most theaters in the black community are boarded up,” he adds. “And of course, many theaters won’t rent to us because there’s an incestuous relationship between Hollywood, theater owners and video stores. We’ve been evicted from several theaters when Hollywood movies wanted use of the theater. Why? Because if theaters don’t take whatever junk comes from the industry pipe, they won’t get movies they want in the future.”
Born and raised in Ethiopia, the fourth in a family of 10 children, Gerima says his mother was a teacher and his father was a playwright.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to work in theater--it never occurred to me I could be a filmmaker because I was raised on Hollywood movies that pacified me to be subservient. Filmmaking isn’t encouraged or supported by the Ethiopian government, who prefer that people merely consume things exported by the U.S.”
In 1967, he came to America and enrolled at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, planning to work in the theater, and after three years there, transferred to the theater department at UCLA.
“It was there,” he says, “I saw the African and Latin American movies that awakened me to myself as a filmmaker--by the time I graduated in 1976, I’d completed four films.”
Despite having a degree from UCLA and nine films under his belt, Gerima is still an outsider 19 years later.
“Many distributors looked at ‘Sankofa,’ but they all refused to handle it,” he says of the film, which was made for $1 million largely raised in Africa and Europe.
“Why? I think my film has been shunned because it’s about slavery. Everyone talks about the Jewish Holocaust, but nobody talks about the African American holocaust of slavery. We’ve never dealt with the question of why the world sold black people, and it’s a subject that still makes people uncomfortable.
“The first part of ‘Sankofa’ is set on a plantation and my original plan was to shoot in Louisiana, but the minute we got there and they saw a black crew they jacked up the price of everything,” he adds. “So, I shot that sequence in Jamaica, then a year later went to Africa and completed the rest of the film in three weeks.”
Of his struggle to finance the film, Gerima says, “I didn’t bother looking for funding in Hollywood because Hollywood is incapable of allowing African Americans to make the films they want to make--what they want from us is hooligan movies. The blaxploitation films Hollywood produced in the ‘70s, for instance, did nothing for the African American community. Those directors were like cotton pickers who were working for the major plantation--Hollywood.
“This situation made me ask myself: Why are we submitting to this narrative dictatorship? Can we introduce our language? ‘Sankofa’ is an imperfect answer to those questions. I want to tell my stories the way my father told stories to me and have no interest in perpetuating the Hollywood planet, because everyone is disfigured by the disaster taking place there.”