A revolutionary film espouses not only a revolutionary politic but should challenge the rigid traditions of film form. The belief that all stories must have three-acts, a reputable main character, and conflict has manifested into indisputable fact. So has the silly idea that one cannot edit across 180 degrees, that conversations should transpire via shot-reverse-shot, or certain types of shots have universal meanings (ex. close shots = intimacy). But how can film, something which can be formally altered and is not an object of divine creation, possess rules? Like any type of industry, cinema’s means of production, from its first inception, has been in the hands of the rich and powerful. If capitalism has degraded the beauty and wonders of the human experience into a mechanized living, art under capitalism, similarly, has created a rigid formal manual which functions to limit artistic and political expression.
Few films, or rather those which are infamous and globally recognized, have directly challenged this order. Those which have are lost in the archive, inaccessible, neglected from “the film canon”, which is of course created by bourgeois and, largely white, institutions, and barely seen. This is true of Haile Gerima’s incredibly overlooked Ashes and Embers which asserts itself as a filmic and politically revolutionary piece of art.
Ned Charles (John Anderson), the protagonist and a troubled Vietnam War veteran, is introduced to us an object; a damaged and traumatized piece of disposable capital owned by the U.S. empire. He is a victim of the most violent mechanization, the forced and unnatural transformation of the human being into a violent, mindless monster; a member of the coerced poor and black populations who exists as a disposable reserve army for the U.S. war machine.
Despite the ideological confrontations with his girlfriend, Liza Jane (Kathy Flewellen), and the members of her radical political study group, Ned has convinced himself that his involvement in Vietnam has nothing to do with politics. To paraphrase him: socialism, communism, and all the radical -isms which represent the politics of Liza Jane’s study group don’t matter in war; all that matters is survival. Classism, race and racism, to, him, are irrelevant.
Ned’s beliefs, and not Ned himself, are made to look ridiculous when put in confrontation with more politically sound characters. The conversations double as a means to develop an anti-colonial critique and also quietly serve to showcase an image which is a rare sight in media and visual arts, black intellectual life.
Nothing about Ned resembles the typical treatment of a protagonist. He is not only placed in opposition with more politically sound characters but antagonized by non-diegetic elements. Editing and camera work are typically made to accentuate and further centralize the main character, like providing the audience with access to their memories in the form of a flashback or their thought process through internal dialogue. Contrastingly, in one scene where Ned goes into detail about his bloodiest encounter in Vietnam, as shown above, the frames fail to compliment the content of his tragic retelling and portrait Ned as a distant, dark, and unfocused figure. The pictorial disfiguration of Ned is reminiscent of the infamous de-characterizing zoom of Sergio in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. Both scenes communicate the same sentiments about their protagonists and their belief systems, that they’re unimportant, delusional, and dismissible.
The most violent antagonism between Ned and the montage happens moments after he storms out of his grandmother’s church mid-service. Images of war bombard his memory. Instead of projecting a precise representation of Ned’s memory, as most films would, Gerima inserts archival footage of American soldiers shooting down at Vietnamese people from their helicopters. The juxtaposition between the two images, the American gunmen and a fleeing Ned, make it appear as though Ned is escaping their gunfire. The montage voices a clear belief: the violence committed by the U.S. state apparatus against the Vietnamese is parallel to the violence committed against the U.S.’s black populations. This transforming of a shell-shocked psyche into a political montage cuts across space and time as the bullets fired by American soldiers seem to neutralize Ned despite the two subjects not occupying the same spatial realm. This psychotic breakdown, his worst yet, ends with Ned laying almost lifelessly on the edges of muddy creak water.
Soon after this breakdown a sudden and inspiring call to action soon consumes Ned. The ironing out of his politics, and hence the redemption of his character, is what distinguishes Ned, and Ashes and Embers for that matter, from other anti-hero types or morally questionably protagonists like Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for example. His suffering isn’t made into a spectacle, used as a device to establish an angsty atmosphere and tone, or treated to develop a nihilistic, anti-empathetic, and anti-political observation about the supposed innate nature of violence in our society. There is a tremendous sense of sympathy encircling his journey from brainwashed soldier, to a self-aware and politicized black intellectual. Believing that he could mature from a Vietnam war apologist into a black revolutionary through a few conversations, is, yes, a little utopian but meaningful nonetheless. There is power and beauty, in this choice to depict an image of rehabilitation and healing of a black man rather than punishment and dismissal of his character.
Another stylistic montage, the film’s last, breaks the rules of traditional on-screen space-time representation. Ned’s grandmother tells Liza Jane the story of a slave uprising, one passed down throughout her family lineage. Although Ned is physically absent, a repeated cut between an intimate close-up of him riding the bus as his grandmother’s voice echos off-screen saying, “And don’t you ever forget it” in reference to the history of their ancestors. Inserted in between these shots Liza Jane is shown politicking at local community centers. A small ellipses is formed. Every time it’s repeated Ned’s grandmother’s echo grows louder, the close-up on Ned’s face grows more intimate, and Liza Jane continues to politic. This inspiring and agitational audiovisual crescendo ends with Ned childishly laying on-top of his grandmother on her porch swing. Compared to the emotional chaos, breakdowns, and angry outbursts, this final image is the film’s sweetest. It evokes a a heartwarming message that even our most seemingly lost loved ones are capable of rehabilitation, and at the center of all of this, our suffering, our loss, our healing, political action, and struggle will always be an undying love for ourselves and each other.