Haile Gerima Is a Cinema Legend but Still Can’t Find Support for His Films
Haile Gerima makes movies about social justice, inner-city poverty, and the African American experience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his films don’t tend to be financed by major studios. He’s typically relied on funding from nonprofits and coproducers in Europe, but this time around, he’s taking a more modern approach by launching a crowdsourcing effort for the first time. There’s just one problem: In a month, the IndieGoGo campaign has only raised about 10 percent of its goal of $500,000, which will be matched by an independent coproducer.
Saaret Yoseph, the campaign’s project manager, isn’t worried. She says she’ll continue working to raise the remaining funds for as long as it takes to make the movie, Yetut Lij, which explores human rights abuses in 1960s Ethiopia. “[Gerima’s] been very vocal about the realities for independent filmmakers, so it is a struggle, and it is challenging. We’re navigating the landscape,” says Yoseph, who is also involved with the film’s production.
The campaign got an unexpected boost on Monday, thanks to the very visible encouragement of Selma director Ava Duvernay. On Twitter, she pleaded with her more than 100,000 followers to help support and promote Gerima’s IndieGoGo campaign—if not because he’s “a giant of cinema,” then because he’s a rare role model, an Ethiopian-born American director who’s continued making films well into his 60s.
“It’s challenging enough for women and people of color filmmakers when they are considered ‘prime.’ How about when you add age?” she tweeted, using her social media influence to start a conversation about race and age bias in Hollywood. The IndieGoGo campaign was set to expire on Wednesday night but has since been extended three weeks.
“I think moments like this are really heartening and really kind of make, I would hope, all of us [feel] optimistic about what can happen when we collectively stand up and say what we want to see in the theaters and the kind of films we want to support,” Yoseph says, referring to Duvernay’s series of tweets as “a sermon.”
Duvernay’s Twitter megaphone didn’t exactly elicit a flood of campaign donations, but it may have helped introduce Gerima’s work to a new generation. His independent films are largely overlooked by mainstream audiences, but they’ve received awards at international film festivals and honors from directors including Martin Scorsese, who presented a restored version of Gerima’s Harvest: 3000 Years at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006.
At 72, Scorsese is three years Gerima’s senior, but his age has only fueled his cinematic legacy. The same goes for Clint Eastwood, 85, whose biggest blockbuster to date was last year’s American Sniper. Woody Allen, 79, scored his highest-grossing movie with 2013’s Midnight in Paris, which raked in more than twice that of his previous top-earning movie in the 1980s. And yet, when Duvernay called on her Twitter followers to name a black filmmaker who has been supported in making films well into his or her later years, more than 100 people responded but all came up short.
So, Why Should You Care? Filmmakers of color are consistently underrepresented in mainstream cinema, even when they’re much younger than Gerima is today. Despite accounting for about 37 percent of the U.S. population, minorities directed just under 18 percent of the 174 movies released in 2013, according to researchers at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.
If that number seems low, consider that it’s a significant increase from the years prior, when minorities directed about 12 percent of films in 2011 and 2012. The bump in 2013 was attributed to a surge in films with black protagonists: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Frutivale Station, and 12 Years a Slave, for which Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win an Oscar for directing.
“I think that, simply put, Haile tells stories by and about and for people of color and those who identify as minorities—which I think so many of us are these days—and even those who don’t have come to embrace his films,” Yoseph says. That should be a good thing for studios: American audiences prefer movies and shows created with the input of diverse talent, according to researchers at UCLA. Their conclusion? Diversity sells.
“He definitely does align himself with narratives of people of color, because he is a black filmmaker,” Yoseph says. But that doesn’t mean the themes of his movies aren’t universal. “I think this type of story, because it deals with human rights, gender equality, economic equality, very much speaks to other people’s narrative as well, and I think we’ve been very fortunate for people to be introduced through Ava to his background and understand that he’s telling their story, too.”
Editor's Note: This story has been update to reflect that Ava DuVernay has more than 100,000 Twitter followers, not 32,000 as originally reported.