Ashes & Embers is agitprop. It does not seek to entertain. It does not want you to sit down, settle in, shut off your brain and have fun. Haile Gerima’s film announces its contempt for such fanciful Hollywood confection in its first scene which features an aspiring actor named Randolph and the protagonist Nay Charles (played with effective intensity by John Anderson) cruising down Sunset Boulevard. Randolph’s dream of seeing his name in lights is rudely interrupted by the red and blue flashing lights of an LAPD cruiser. Soon our hero and his friend are being arrested at gunpoint.
The point of this introduction is crystal clear. Gerima’s film is a challenging non-linear endeavor; half experimental, half narrative, and above all a call to arms. In the film, in an almost Resnais-like fashion, Nay Charles shifts through time and space with the ease and anarchy of memory. This is deeply appropriate as Nay Charles is a figure of above all dislocation.
A Vietnam veteran who is struggling to keep his psychic scars from leading to his complete disintegration, we see Charles in three settings: the Hollywood scenario where he lives with Randolph the wanna-be star, Washington D.C. where his educated revolutionary girlfriend holds meetings where impotent theorizing is the main fare, and an unnamed bucolic Southern town where his Grandma lives on his familial land.
The film shifts between these geographies and times, and in each Nay Charles rejects the path to wholeness offered to him.
It must be noted that Ashes and Embers was released in 1982, after the first rush of Hollywood Vietnam films (e.g, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now which is quoted derisively in the film) and the second wave that would come in four short years after starting with Platoon. But the film I found myself matching it with (for what would make a grueling double feature) is Taxi Driver.
Travis Bickle and Nay Charles are brothers and yet at odds. Let us recall that all of Travis’ victims in his redemptive bloodbath were (in the script) to all be Black men. And beyond Bickle’s racial animus, Nay Charles is a refutation of Travis’ individualist bourgeois nihilism.
Charles wants the world to be a better place. No redemptive violence for him. But he has lost his way, just as the movements that had delivered so much to Black people had lost their way at the dawn of the Reagan Era.
As Nay Charles slips from one space to another in a manner that mimics the free association of memory, he is either giving a speech or receiving one. Most compelling in this is his Grandma, played by Evelyn A. Blackwell, another of those wondrous acting treasures L.A. Rebellion films often deliver. After Nay Charles tries to explain why he has rejected her faith (can I say how much I enjoy watching these Black films that have a deep skepticism or unease towards Christianity?) the silent, world-weary pain in her eyes as she looks at her lost grandson is absolutely unforgettable.
Gerima displays a lot of talent with his mise-en-scene, his editing and sound design. To be clear, he has not received enough recognition for his chops alone. To put it in French New Wave terms, his work recalls post-Weekend Godard blended with Jacques Rivette. Gerima’s preference for experimental flourishes over naturalism and agitprop over simple daily struggle marks him as unique in the L.A. Rebellion.
Keep in mind that as an Ethiopian immigrant to America, his point of view is different from many of his compatriots. That gaze serves him well. He succeeds in conveying Nay Charles’ anomie and dislocation, perhaps too well.
As formally accomplished as the film is, the singular desire to re-ignite a certain flame in Nay Charles and the viewer (hence the title), ultimately strikes me as one-note, repetitive, and at times, though I hate to say it, boring (I do not use this word lightly nor unadvisedly).
At half of its 129 minute running time, I suspect Ashes and Embers could have made the same points more effectively. Gerima’s formal brilliance is at odds with his content, which seems to these eyes in the 21st century, overly simplistic and didactic. The actors are playing symbols (“The Vet On The Edge”, “The Soulful Link To The Lost Past”, “The Vapid Sell-Out”, “The Wise Repository Of Our Glorious Past”) not characters. That’s not really a complaint. It would seem to be part of Gerima’s strategy. From my limited exposure to his oeuvre, Gerima wants to capture with his camera the process of political awakening. That the result falls short says as much about myself as a viewer and the way history has unfolded since 1982 as it does about his filmmaking.
But in the end, even on its own terms, the hopeful conclusion rings hollow compared to what has preceded it. Gerima tries to imagine a future where the young take up the mantle of our past heroes. And for a moment, that happened in five or so years when events and Hip Hop politicized my generation. But if we view this in the long run, the results are dubious. It may seem unfair to judge the film by what has happened since it was made, but aren’t all films in some way destined to be judged that way?
I think Ashes & Embers would like to be for everybody (and by everybody, I mean a broad swath of the Black audience). And yet, the complexity of the film language renders that an impossibility. If it failed to achieve its goals, Gerima’s accomplished and difficult film stands as a monument to a particular moment in our history that the Cult of Reagan would greatly prefer we forget.