We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There is little of beauty that emerged from Europe’s colonization of Africa. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the powers of Western Europe swept into the continent with ruthless speed and efficiency. Those who resisted the invaders were either killed or exiled. Nineteenth-century Ethiopian monarch Menelik II was an exception. In 1896, he dealt one of the few decisive defeats to a European power during Africa’s colonial era, routing the Italian army at the Battle of Adwa. Ethiopia’s victory over the Italians became a beacon to colonized Africans across the continent and to oppressed blacks throughout the African diaspora. When Ethiopia was again invaded by the Italians during World War II, many African-Americans volunteered specifically to fight for the country’s defense.
While growing up in Ethiopia, filmmaker Haile Gerima had no clue that the Battle of Adwa had any significance to people beyond his homeland’s borders. “I became aware [of the battle’s influence] once I came into this country,” says Gerima. “[Ethiopians] didn’t know anything about African-Americans and their historic struggles. We were busy studying European history.” But the international implications of Menelik’s victory helped convince Gerima to make a film about the battle. His new documentary, Adwa: An African Victory!, examines the symbolic significance of Ethiopia’s being the only African country to successfully resist the forces of colonialism. “Adwa is an emotional bridge that…makes you realize the higher implications of being part of the diaspora,” says Gerima.
Gerima plumbed the depths of black history for film material, but he doesn’t expect other black filmmakers to follow his lead. Support for black historical films, he asserts, turns up only when a white actor plays the role of sympathetic liberator. “I would have liked to have done a drama,” says Gerima. “But the powers that be which distribute the films are white….They have no interest in pushing our story, and we are not culturally or economically organized to push our own cultural nutrition.”
Gerima says he knows several black filmmakers who are interested in offering historical dramas, but the sponsorship simply isn’t there. “If I wanted to do a film about Denmark Vessey,” says Gerima, “the powers that be would be threatened because the film wouldn’t represent their story.” Gerima says that he will take Adwa to 10 or 15 cities (the film has no distribution deal) and then send it straight to video. In an age when Master P can get a movie distributed but Gerima can’t, the future of black history in cinema looks bleak. “When I went to film school, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t want to do these type of films,” says Gerima. “But the support in Hollywood isn’t there. And I don’t think the black people with money have any understanding of the importance of culture.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates