This is groundbreaking!
Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY is set to restore and re-release legendary filmmaker Haile Gerima’s SANKOFA on Netflix.
Gerima is a native of Ethiopia who moved to the US in 1967. His 1993 film SANKOFA was the first-of-its-kind story that tells the story of Black resistance. He created it after two decades of research into the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved African people. The film went on to be selected at the Berlin International Film Festival and AFI Film Festival in 1993. During the film’s initial release, distributors wouldn’t pick it up.
Then, Mr. Gerima and his wife, Shirikiana Gerima, self-distributed through their independent company, relying on spreading the word through grassroots efforts in Black communities. They fought against discriminatory practices and even people who wouldn’t accept the report of the film’s sales. They continued to go city to city, talking about the film and selling their own merchandise, relying on the network of the community.
“It’s important to realize that though our work had been receiving international attention for quite some time, our films did not appear theatrically...It was quite clear that there was almost a resentment...we were very clear...that part of the reason why we were being treated this way was because we were a Black production, from beginning to end,” Mrs. Gerima told Because Of Them We Can.
Together, they were able to sell-out screenings in theaters across the country for two years straight. The film was selected at the Berlin International Film Festival and AFI Film Festival in 1993. Through their independent distribution, The Gerimas were able to prove that the film was important to the community and that Black audiences would support their own. Mr. Gerima said they initially began with their earlier films, “experimenting with the community’s power, because [they] believed in it.” The release of SANKOFA solidified that power and Black people came out in droves to see it.
“We did show to young Black filmmakers and the African American community their own power...We proved that,” Mr. Gerima said.
He now hopes that their journey can serve as a beacon of independence for future generations.
“For our young people, especially Black people who are thinking about recreating or re-empowering what we attempted, we want them to know still in the end, Black people have to own their own theaters, they have to have films and production companies...This community should have independent Black distribution companies and independent theatrical ownership the way they did in the 1930s and 40s,” he said.
Now, ARRAY has partnered with Mr. Gerima for a 4K restoration of the culture-shifting film, re-releasing the rarely-seen SANKOFA on Netflix in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Tilane Jones, president of ARRAY, spoke about the significance of the partnership.
“Mr. and Mrs. Gerima are trailblazers of independent filmmaking and grassroots distribution in the Black cinematic diaspora. ARRAY Releasing is abundantly honored and proud to have been selected by The Gerimas to introduce their landmark film to new audiences with a remastered re-release of the masterpiece, SANKOFA,” Jones said in a press release.
The film follows Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), a Black American fashion model, at a photoshoot in Cape Coast, Ghana. Mona then travels back in time to a plantation in North America where she becomes Shola, an enslaved African woman who experiences firsthand the horrors of slavery, forcing her to confront her ancestral identity and experience.
This isn’t the first time ARRAY has partnered with Mr. Gerima, previously re-releasing his 1982 award-winning film Ashes and Embers, which received the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Fest in 1983. The film will hold its Los Angeles re-release at the ARRAY Creative Campus, followed by a screening of Ashes and Embers the following day. Mr. Gerima is also set to receive the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Inaugural Vantage Award that day and host a week of intensive Masterclasses on ARRAY’s Creative Campus.
The Gerimas spoke about the ARRAY partnership, saying, “We are honored to be a part of Ava’s courageous vision to be human in an industry that has tortured the image and psychology of people of color for so long.”
SANKOFA is the 35th title from ARRAY Releasing, previous films including DuVernay’s Sundance Film Festival-winning Middle of Nowhere, Shantrelle P. Lewis’ In Our Mothers’ Gardens, and their son Merawi Gerima’s Independent Spirit Award-winning film Residue.
The Gerima’s say it’s a full circle moment the publicity they’re getting now and credit DuVernay and her fearlessness for bringing SANKOFA to a new audience.
“I can’t say I gave my film to Netflix. I think we gave it to Ava. We’ve always looked for the African American to emerge with institutions, feasible, credible institutions to take the baton. I felt Ava is the logical [choice], in this struggle of passing the baton. So I’m seeing now what Ava is going to do with this film...I felt we were very lucky in our lifetime to see a sister emerge, and even pay tribute to us saying ‘we are her influence’ and ‘we set her in motion,’” Mr. Gerima said.
The couple said that the road hasn’t been easy and admits that at one point, they became exhausted with pushing a film in an industry that fought so hard against it. Nevertheless, they persevered and believe they have left a legacy of what’s possible and the power of independence.
“To feel like you always know that you have the capacity. That you have the possibility. [But having to be] convinced on a daily basis that the environment you are operating in is desirable as a goal, is a tragedy. The idea that you can reimagine the environment as another goal is a challenge. And that’s the kind of path that we’ve taken, imagining another possibility. That imagination has come from ancestors who have imagined another possibility. So keeping in touch with one’s self and one’s track record helps you to stay on track...So I think if we’ve had anything to contribute I hope that it will be a sense of possibility. I just hope people will have courage. Continue to have courage,” Mrs. Gerima said.
“I think independence is key. I’ve been at Howard [University] teaching for over 43 years. I stress [that] it doesn’t matter where you work. But in the end, everywhere you work is a plantation of some kind. Do you have your own and also on the side are you cultivating and nurturing an independent institution that is yours. This gets confused in this bombastic idea of success and fame and intoxication. We can be intoxicated in the plantation house, it will never be your house...The lesson for me was that from the outset,” Mr. Gerima added.
The premiere screening of SANKOFA will be held Friday, September 24th, and is open and free to the public with proof of vaccination and registration at www.arrayplay.com. The screening of Ashes and Embers will take place on September 25th, the same day Mr. Gerima is set to receive the Vantage Award.
SANKOFA airs on Netflix on September 24th.
Photo Courtesy of Ava Duvernay/Twitter