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Blackbuster: Haile Gerima's D.C. Store Rents
A Different Kind of Black Film

A Challenge to the "American Culture Machine"

by Esther Iverem Film Critic

Haile Gerima's film Sankofa was
an underground hit.

Just north of Howard University's campus in Washington, D. C., amid vegetarian eateries, a neighborhood bar and a typewriter repair shop, a different kind of video store has opened, and it is much more than just a place to rent movies.

"We feel we are making our last stand in the cultural struggle-that is the struggle to make our own image," said veteran filmmaker Haile Gerima, whose movie, "Sankofa," was an underground hit. He was speaking from the porch of the building he purchased to house his company, Mypheduh Films, Inc. and his Sankofa Video and Bookstore—which specializes in a select group of works by and about people of African descent.

At the store's grand opening four years ago, such grandiloquence was poignant. On that brisk spring day, Gerima was addressing a crowd of his fellow cultural soldiers—local writers, musicians and filmmakers—gathered in the front yard of the building. Balloons tied to the front fence danced in the wind and a red "Howard Centennial" banner flapped overhead. A Yoruba priestess poured a libation for the ancestors, intoning: "It is because of their sacrifices that we are here, that we have not died, and that we shall not die."

Gerima's "tough, Detroit wife" and business partner, Shirikiana Aina, was at his side, pregnant with their fifth child. Standing behind him were fiery poets from the 1960's generation of black writers, Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez. With graying hair and weary, smiling eyes, the three looked like veteran warriors who easily fashion the language of war to fit what is a social and cultural fight.

"I respect this place we have here very much," Gerima said in the accent of his native Ethiopia, gesturing to the two-story building behind him. "That's why I call it a liberated territory."

Since then, Sankofa has taken on and struggled with its mandate of selling independent and foreign films to a black film-going population more accustomed to Hollywood fare such as "Big Momma's House" and "The Scary Movie." To Gerima's generation of activist artists, it is that rare thing: a concrete result of "institution building" and the efforts of these artists to challenge the American popular culture machine. While the store wants to be a gathering place for artists and thinkers, it must make money or go the way of many such well-meaning but cash-starved free territories.

"No doubt," said Kwame Alexander, publisher and president of the Alexander Publishing Group, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that presents poetry and music slams in the Washington, D.C. area. "A lot of people might tend to gather in the store because Haile and Shirikiana have created this family-like atmosphere," he says. "But to a certain degree that can go overboard where people are enjoying the intellectual vibe-you know, they like talking to Haile, and discussing the plight of Black people-but nobody's buying anything.

"You want to create a balance between economic support and cultural appreciation," he says, adding, "My favorite expression is, 'Everybody's conscious. But how we gonna eat?"

Maceo Williams, a native of Sankofa's neighborhood, is just the kind of customer the store wants to attract. Until he transferred to Howard a few years back, he was a graduate student in film at the University of Southern California. Visiting the store, Willis plunked down a credit card on the rear glass counter and filled out an application for a video rental membership. "I think the store should attract people who are looking for films that aren't readily available elsewhere," he said.

He walked over to shelves stacked with videos to rent and pointed to several of them: "films like 'Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song' (by Melvin Van Peebles,) 'Putney Swope' (by Robert Downey Jr.) and 'Dark City—that's an African film—they won't be available at your average video store,'' he said.

The store feels more like a living room, with carpeted floors, a couch, a television and warm wooden shelves, Those shelves are also stocked with Hollywood hits like "Menace II Society" and "Juice," which are more popular with the general population of the neighborhood.

But it is the task of the store to "make it normal," as Gerima says, for more African Americans to view foreign, independent and little-known Hollywood films from the Black diaspora. Open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., the store is renting 100 to 150 films a week, up from just 30 to 40 a week when it opened. About 1500 people have joined as members. Most of its business comes from sales of books and videos, said Tesfu Gerima, a manager at the store and the owner's younger brother.

One woman who worked next door said that because she has cable she rarely rents movies. "Foreign films don't appeal to me," she said. Another area resident, Adrienne Waheed, a photographer and student of film, said that she hadn't developed a taste for foreign films either. But she added, she is interested in renting the store's English-language films. Both agree that foreign films need to be better marketed to the Black community.

"I guess a lot of a lot of people who don't go to see foreign films don't know a lot about them," says Waheed. "If there was more advertising for them, they would go to see them."

In a sense, Mypheduh Films and Sankofa Video Store came about as a result of marketing-with a healthy portion of stubbornness thrown in. When Gerima's film, "Sankofa," about African American slavery, was turned down by movie distributors and theaters around the country, Gerima "footwalked" it to 35 cities, and ended up grossing $3 million. When Blockbuster Entertainment declined to stock his film on their shelves, he decided to open his own video store. Gerima used some of the "Sankofa" profits as a down payment on the commercial property on Georgia Avenue, which cuts through the Black neighborhoods north of downtown D.C.

The building houses a conference room, business offices and editing facilities, used by Gerima's wife, Aina, the company's vice president, to finish her first feature, "Through the Door of No Return." The film tells two stories: one about Ainu's search for the history of her father, the other about African Americans who visit West African slave castles. Gerima also used the space here to edit his 1999 film, "Adwa," named for the region where the Italians were defeated in 1896 in their attempt to colonize Ethiopia.

The director/entrepreneur sure can talk. He holds forth on his passions—film distribution, the evils of Hollywood, young filmmakers with big studio deals but no vision, sex comedies that he calls booty up-booty down" movies—and barely takes a breath. It's all about war.

Yet, here in the building, home to the institution he is building, he shows a mellow side as well. When school is out, his five children have the run of the building. They like watching videos in the conference room.

Gerima recalls that when he came to the United States in the '60's as a college student, he didn't know Black people here had come from Africa. Soon he was caught up in the decade's nationalism and, through the African American embrace of Africa, he was able to embrace his own African roots.

Although he was called Haile, the formal name given to Gerima by his father was "Mypheduh," from the Ethiopian Geze language. Gerima interprets the word to mean "sacred shield of culture." On the sign out in front of the video store, there is just that—two fierce warriors carrying a shield, frozen as they advance. Gerima thinks that by distributing a wide range of films and making his facilities available to independent filmmakers, he has made his store into a sort of base of operations for the cultural war being fought.

"Here in our own building, we're cultivating those kinds of ideas," he says. "It is our children, and all children of African descent who must take up the battle from here."

-- April 9, 2001


Mypheduh Films, Inc.
and Sankofa Video and Bookstore
2714 Georgia Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20002

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