Healing. For me, this was the overall theme of Ashes and Embers, Haile Gerima’s tale of a returned Vietnam Vet, Nate Charles (named for Nat C. Turner). I am the son of a Vietnam Vet, a career military man who joined the army at the age of 15 (they did not check birth certificates then) after the execution of Willie McGee in Mississippi in 1951.
In 1945, Willie McGee had been accused of raping a white woman. An all-white jury took less than three minutes to find him guilty, and McGee was sentenced to death. McGee’s cause was championed by the likes of Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker. President Truman came under international pressure to grant McGee a pardon. Author William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Bella Abzug brought his appeals in Mississippi and the Supreme Court in one of the first civil rights cases of her legal career.
My father listened to Willie McGee’s execution on the radio. My father says it changed him; he became even more rebellious. At the age of 15, he felt he had get out of the black hole of Mississippi. Joining the newly integrated army was his escape. World War II had ended and it was a job away from the cotton fields, the actual and metaphorical whip and lashes of the south—and to experience more of the same.
For many young black men, the military was a gateway to training, education, and a new house under the GI Bill. My father served two years then was released; he met my mother and they had me, then he re-enlisted and we headed north to Chicago, where he served as a radar man for Nike missile bases around Lake Michigan. (If you ever played the video game “Missile Command,” that was pretty much the idea of those bases in the 1950s.) He barely escaped a trip to wartime Korea, but didn’t miss out on the next conflict. In 1964 he went to Vietnam and was wounded. He returned to a country gone mad and a resentful antiwar son who had been headed to West Point before he left, and a commie peace activist when he came back. Every war changes all of us. Every war wounds all of us. And there is little or no space for healing.
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Ashes and Embers…the idea of it appealed to me because of my father and all the young Vietnam vets I knew and hung out with, some younger, few much older than I. I was raised among soldiers. To me, in 1982, after all the Vietnam films, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, only one bit of media spoke to the black Vietnam soldier’s experience—Wallace Terry’s book Bloods and the accompanying album of his field interviews (released by Motown!) that I picked up during a trip to the Berlin Film Festival.
Ashes and Embers was the war come home, to a war that was not over. It expanded the mission of World War II’s Double V campaign to mobilize the black community. Victory at home and abroad.
“The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries, which are fighting for victory… Let we colored Americans adopt the double V for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.” (James G. Thompson, 1942)
Nate Charles returns to America and begins a journey of return, but what is there to return to? He is a haunted Vietnam vet on the run. He travels between Los Angeles and North Carolina to the home of his grandmother. She tries to help him on his return. She sees his brooding and tries to snap him out of it. She is like an Eric Dolphy flute solo to his slow bass of a character that erupts into cacophonies of bent notes on the verge of breaking. She tells him to keep running or gather the strength of the strong men who came before him. The film is nonlinear—it moves back and forth between times and locations, whipping us back and forth and burying us in the character’s psyche. The wounded body of a soldier dragged across the asphalt of some bombed out road in “the ‘Nam” repeats over and over during the course of the film, between monologues about the Hollywood image machine and tales of Denmark Vesey. Nate Charles’s handsome face expresses a man adrift.
We don’t know the minds of our veterans, what they have to live with, the ways in which young men go to war and then try to reintegrate after the things they have seen and done. Ashes and Embers at least tries to do what Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter would not or could not do—make us feel some of the angst of the survivors, to build some kind of bridge of understanding the war experiences of young black men. Some proclaimed the film a failure, but I saw it as a magnificent attempt to make us FEEL, not escape.
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This first film I programmed represented the direction I wanted the festival to go in. To champion films with this kind of voice. It is a difficult film and it is an awesome film. It has stuck with me for 31 years.
When I founded Blacklight, we were in the era of Reagan in 1982, full throttle into “the Bonzo Years.” The country was in a recession, its effects were felt across America. Farmers were driven off their land by high interest rates. In the cities, homelessness became a scandal. Thousands of businesses failed. Unemployment reached its highest level since the Great Depression. Harold Washington was preparing to run for Mayor, and would be victorious in 1983.
To me it was always clear that a festival like Blacklight should have a mission, not to duplicate and celebrate the cinema of Hollywood aesthetics, but to illuminate the things not seen. To be a filter for work that could shine brightly to our audiences.
The night before Willie McGee was electrocuted by the state of Mississippi, he wrote a farewell letter to his wife, Rosalie:
“Tell the people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down…. They can’t do this if you and the children keep on fighting. Never forget to tell them why they killed their daddy. I know you won’t fail me. Tell the people to keep on fighting. Your truly husband, Will McGee.”
The spirit of McGee’s testament runs through this film.
Today when I talk to my father, he has many regrets about going to war, but he did his duty. I don’t get any shit from him about not becoming an officer and doing mine. My duty was as a citizen opposed to immoral invasion and imperial occupations, and it still is. We understand each other more. Ashes and Embers gave me a vehicle to understand my father. So it was a selfish decision, but I think it was a worthy one.
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Ashes and Embers
Introduced by Floyd Webb
Saturday, June 15 at 7pm
Black Cinema House
6901 S. Dorchester Ave.
Free screening. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a seat.