Merawi Gerima
© Lauren Desberg

In one of my earliest memories, I am riding through a sugar cane field on a big, long horse with three of my siblings. Soon after, I am clinging to my dad while watching a woman screaming and flailing about in a clearing elsewhere in the cane fields. We were in Jamaica, on a film set, shooting the final scene of Sankofa (1993). My mother, who had been frantically producing and fundraising in the US to keep the sorely underfunded production going, was finally able to fly, with us four babies in tow, to join my father on set.

Later, as I grew and gained some semblance of myself and the world around me, the word ‘Sankofa’ became embedded in the vocabulary of my day-to-day existence. It didn’t mean much to me then, but it was ever-present. After school or on weekends, my mother would drive me and my siblings to a film lab in Virginia, a place we knew as ‘Bono’s’. Upstairs, we would find our dad in a dark room, hunched over a Steenbeck editing bay, working under the warm light of a single bulb. The Steenbeck would squeal as it jogged forward or backward through the footage. We would watch him mark the film with chalk, cut it on the splicer, join the new edit with tape, and respool the film on the Steenbeck to review his edit over and over. The sounds and images of the film being edited, constructed frame by frame, winding forward and backward endlessly over the course of two years, meant little to me as a child.

In the following years, my family, our friends and our extended family carted the film around the country and screened it at every kind of venue imaginable. We answered audience questions late into the night, passed out flyers, sold VHS tapes at conventions and festivals, and chased bootleggers down the streets of New York and Philadelphia. As a result of this process, which more closely resembled community organising than film distribution, countless chapters of the ‘Sankofa Family’ were born around the US and the world. These Sankofa Families consisted primarily of everyday Black people who were willing to pool their own money to rent a theatre near them in order to screen Sankofa to their community. Often, it outperformed blockbuster Hollywood films like Batman Returns (1992) in Black communities. It was a solid Black middle-finger to the racist American film industry, which had completely shut Sankofa out even though it was one of the most lauded films in the global film festival circuit in the year it was released.

Haile Gerima

I was living through one of the most radical moments in the history of Black independent filmmaking, but as a child, the significance of what I was seeing was lost on me. This entire process was repeated in 1997 for my mother Shirikiana Aina’s film Through the Door of No Return, in 1999 for my father’s Adwa, and then again in 2010 for Teza.

It wasn’t until I travelled to Los Angeles to study film in 2015 that I began to appreciate the magnitude of my parents’ legacy. Before I drove across the country from Washington DC to LA, a friend of my father commented presciently, “You’re driving all the way over there when your dad, Haile Gerima, is an entire film school unto himself here?”

My parents gave me the middle name Sankara, but it wasn’t until I was thousands of miles away from them that I learned the details of their participation in President Thomas Sankara’s cultural revolution in Burkina Faso. They went to Ouagadougou often as filmmaker delegates of the diaspora, alongside others like Pearl Bowser and John Akomfrah. I also learned about their youth storytelling workshops in DC and Philadelphia alongside revolutionary author Toni Cade Bambara. In a film distribution landscape downright hostile to Black films, they created a Pan-African distribution apparatus out of our basement in DC, distributing the films of such giants of cinema as Safi Faye, Charles Burnett, Ousmane Sembène, Kathleen Collins, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Menelik Shabazz, Larry Clarke and Med Hondo. (They were doing in the 70s what every white film collection is scrambling to do right now under public pressure and ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ mandates).

I remember playing amid the shelves of film canisters in our basement, but I could not appreciate the scope of their project until it came time for me to follow a similar path. My first feature film, Residue (2020), was made possible by the example that my parents set. Knowing that my father had graduated from UCLA with two feature films under his belt – only one of them, 1979’s Bush Mama, was authorised by the school – I was emboldened to shoot a full-length project outside of school with whatever was in my pocket, rather than settle for a 15-minute thesis film. I spent a year and a half editing the film, sustained throughout by the example of my parents. At the same time, in the same building, my father sat editing his similarly unfinanced, 20-years-in-the-making five-hour epic on the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Residue (2020)

Finally, four years after beginning, my film was complete. But instead of facing the prospect of another four strenuous years of self-distribution, I was facing Ava DuVernay, Tilane Jones and their independent distribution outfit, Array.

Importantly, Ava and Tilane see themselves as standing on the legacy of my parents and their contemporaries; building on the groundwork laid by the elders. They gave Residue a theatrical release and put it on the world’s largest streaming platform the same year. In this day and age, that may seem commonplace, but it must be understood within the broader context of a century-long battle of Black people around the world, fighting to create and distribute their films widely.

I am awed by the historic nature of Ava and Tilane’s achievement. They have driven directly to the heart of everything my father spoke about in his 1995 interview with Black Film Bulletin: namely, that regardless of the white film industry’s hostility towards Black storytellers, it is up to Black people themselves to create their own opportunities. As my father is fond of saying: “You have no excuse not to write your story. In so doing, you exercise your own history-making capacity.”

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