|Grandmother and grandson (Evelyn A. Blackwell and John Anderson) on their way to church in Haile Gerima's Ashes and Embers (1982).|
Why is the work of Haile Gerima not better known? Perhaps it’s that his films are more experimental, politically edgier, and angrier than those of his more popular contemporaries Charles Burnett and Spike Lee. Gerima was also born and grew up in Ethiopia, and so—unlike the U.S.-born Burnett and Lee—has tended to approach his films about black lives from a global perspective. In his extraordinary Ashes and Embers (1982), which I checked out for the first time earlier this week, a black American veteran of the Vietnam War (John Anderson) struggles to readjust to civilian life in Los Angeles, haunted by the memory of atrocities he carried out in the name of a country whose white citizens treat him with contempt and suspicion upon his return. But the film’s scope extends beyond Anderson’s story in order to raise (and problematize) questions about activism, the black church, Nat Turner, police brutality, family structures, historical memory, and discrimination within the entertainment industry. At times Gerima’s use of dialectical editing suggests linkages and continuities between the oppression of black Americans and Vietnamese; subplots involving Anderson’s radical-Marxist wife and devoutly religious grandmother throw into relief the experiences and resistance strategies of different generations of black women. It’s an ambitious and striking work—one that, like Gerima’s filmography in general, is ripe for rediscovery.