Haile Gerima’s impact on the history of cinema is undeniable. Over the course of his career, which spans more than five decades, he has made it his life’s work to document the Pan-African experience and collective memory through both documentary and fiction film. He trained as an actor in his native Ethiopia before emigrating to the United States and becoming a part of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement of Black filmmakers in the 1970s.
Gerima is the inaugural recipient of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ Vantage Award, an annual recognition that celebrates filmmakers who contextualize and challenge dominant narratives around cinema. He has revolutionized filmmaking—and continues to do so—by expressing the social and political realities of Black communities facing oppression and exploitation while creating a cinematic style all his own.
The Academy Museum is also honoring Gerima with a screening series—Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and His Comrades—from Oct. 2 to Nov. 14 that highlights his work, as well as that of his colleagues and mentees.
Here are five reasons you should know this legendary filmmaker:
He is a visionary independent. Gerima self-distributes his films, and his Washington, D.C., headquarters also serve as his personal studio/archive and a café/bookstore where visitors can gather for discussions on Pan-African culture. Of his approach, Ava DuVernay said, “For me, the transformative piece of his journey was his distribution and management of his films. That has changed my career path from being someone who was at the mercy of studios and distributors to someone who very early on said, ‘Oh, I actually don’t have to do that. There’s another model. I’ve seen it. It’s been done.’ I stand on his shoulders. He did it."
His filmmaking journey began in Los Angeles. While studying at UCLA, Gerima belonged to a group of young Black filmmakers who have been collectively named the “L.A. Rebellion.” Among his colleagues are Academy Honorary Award recipient Charles Burnett, KAOS Network founder Ben Caldwell and filmmaker Julie Dash.
His work remains hard to see. Many of Gerima’s films are not yet available to stream or on disc, so the Academy Museum’s screenings, many in archival 16mm prints, are rare opportunities to see these vital works.
His films are being restored. Two key films in Gerima’s body of work— Sankofa (1993), his epic counter-narrative about the Atlantic slave trade, and Wilmington 10-USA 10,000 (1979), his documentary about a group of men and women wrongfully convicted in North Carolina for arson of a white-owned business—are being presented in brand-new 4K restoration, the latter by the Academy Film Archive. DuVernay’s Array Releasing is behind the Sankofa rerelease, which debuted Sept. 24 on Netflix. She calls it a “boundary-pushing and transformative film about the untold history of Black resistance.” You can find the trailer here.
He has inspired generations of filmmakers. Gerima has impacted film history not only through his own movies but also as a professor at Howard University. The concept of the Museum’s film series is to celebrate both Gerima’s body of filmmaking work and that of the students he has inspired, among them cinematographers Bradford Young and Malik Sayeed, artist Arthur Jafa, and filmmakers Raafi Rivero and Daniel E. Williams.
Join us at the Museum for Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and His Comrades. Gerima will participate in a panel discussion following the screening of Sankofa on Oct. 2, alongside Bradford Young, Raafi Rivero, Daniel E. Williams and Shirikiana Aina (Gerima’s wife and collaborator). Ava DuVernay will moderate.