Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-week gift: a rare screening with the Broad of Haile Gerima’s ‘Ashes and Embers’
By Carolina A. Miranda
In 1982, the Ethiopian American director Haile Gerima released a feature-length film on the struggles of a black veteran in the wake of the Vietnam War. “Ashes and Embers” told the story of Ned Charles, a man contending with the psychological scars of conflict, both in the U.S. and abroad.
But the film was never widely seen in its day; it never received full theatrical distribution. Since then, it has been practically impossible to catch on the big screen, only rarely materializing at festivals.
“Mr. Gerima is a master of cinema who has been overlooked,” Ava DuVernay says via telephone from New Orleans, where she is directing the television series “Queen Sugar.” “This film is a singular part of the black cinematic canon.”
Well, now “Ashes and Embers” is set to get some valuable screen time. And the timing couldn’t be better as #OscarsSoWhite reaches its climax with Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Thanks to DuVernay’s efforts, as well as the Broad museum, Gerima’s drama shows at REDCAT on Thursday as part of the series called Array. Curated by DuVernay, Array is presenting half a dozen films over the course of several months — principally those directed by women and underrepresented minorities.
“There is nothing we would rather be doing the week of the Oscars,” Ed Patuto, director of audience engagement at the Broad, says of the screening. “The Oscars will come and go. The controversy — we will see how that plays out. But we will keep doing what we are doing, observing the creativity of filmmaking.”
The series is part of a long-running project undertaken by DuVernay to promote and distribute work by artists who are frequently overlooked by the Hollywood distribution machine. Gerima’s film will not only screen in Los Angeles, it will also land on Netflix at the end of February — and Array will host other public screenings at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and the Schomberg Center in New York.
“That’s been a major objective of Array,” Patuto says. “It’s to take these gems which have been important to filmmakers of color, and to make them accessible to a broader audience.”
The series is an extension of a distribution collective that DuVernay launched in 2010 called the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (Affirm). Its goal: to distribute work by black filmmakers, including DuVernay’s own early movies — “The Middle of Nowhere” and “I Will Follow” — made before DuVernay achieved renown as director of the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma.”
“That’s how I got ‘Middle of Nowhere’ into the world,” she says. “And that’s what led to me directing ‘Selma.’ There is a connection.”
Last summer, the collective changed its name from Affirm to Array, adding films by women and other underrepresented directors to its roster. (The Times Glenn Whipp wrote about it.)
And late last year, DuVernay teamed up with the Broad to present these and other works to the public as a series.
For the screening of “Ashes and Embers,” Gerima will be in attendance — interviewed by cinematographer Bradford Young, of “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” Viewers will also be invited to go to the Broad’s galleries to learn about works inspired by social justice issues.
The intent is to put work such as Gerima’s top-of-mind — especially at a time when Hollywood is grappling with issues of diversity.
The director was part of the L.A. Rebellion, an important group of black Los Angeles filmmakers that emerged out of UCLA in the 1970s that included figures such as Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”) and Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”).
Like many of his fellow filmmakers, his work shows a view of Southern California that isn’t always depicted in the movies.
“You’re not seeing much of black Los Angeles on film,” says DuVernay. “You’re not seeing Watts. You’re not seeing Compton. You’re not seeing South L.A. This is the Los Angeles we should see in movies — with all of its texture and its nuances. It has not been seen or explored enough.”