Blackbuster: Haile Gerima's D.C. Store Rents
A Different Kind of Black Film
A Challenge to the "American Culture Machine"
by Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Film Critic
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 Bookstorewhich
specializes in a select group of works by and about people of African
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 soldierslocal writers, musicians
and filmmakersgathered 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
"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 Citythat's an African filmthey 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
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
passionsfilm distribution, the evils of Hollywood, young filmmakers
with big studio deals but no vision, sex comedies that he calls
booty up-booty down" moviesand 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
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 thattwo 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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