For my uncle who was sent to Vietnam a whole man but returned to his family incomplete
“It is for life. PTSD is for life,” she told me. “That person will never, ever get better.”
The faces around the dimly lit table grew serious momentarily as this reality sank in. It was only a warning about a date with a man from the navy who might have been to a recent war. The pause was fleeting before the faces all glazed gold in ambient, restaurant light relaxed into smiles. The easy banter of the earlier conversation resumed.
As the disorienting scenes of Haile Gerima’s Ashes and Embers rolled out before my eyes, those words echoed in my head – it is for life.
Ashes and Embers traces the homecoming of a Vietnam Veteran after his time in the war. Even though the war is over, it lives on inside of him, effectively un-homing him.
The film opens with the all-too-familiar scene of two Black men whose daily lives are interrupted by the flashing lights and sirens of a cop car. The moments between stopping their vehicle and awaiting their encounter with the police are filled with tension. They are caught between their need to maintain the posturing of masculinity while they grapple with real fear for their lives. Cut to our protagonist kneeling on the roadside as the gun of a white police officer is pointed at his head. Life goes on as normal in the outside world as scenes from his own life play out within his mind.
Although this film was released in the early 1980s, over three decades later confrontation between African American men and United States law enforcement officers is still a timely matter. Within the film, the targeting of African-Americans for harrassment at the local hands of the law is played off against the abuse of their minds and bodies to wage war in foreign lands. Within Gerima’s America, the Black man becomes a figure in a permanent state of exile.
In the film’s timeline, the Black Movement had already expanded beyond the clearly defined policy victories that were hard won during the Civil Rights Movement. Having dismantled a door, African-Americans now had to contend with everything that lay beyond it. The struggle was now waged against a more pervasive oppression that did not require laws written in the language of segregation to enforce an equally sinister deprivation of resources. Gone were the days of sit-ins and marching to end legalized segregation. The Black Panthers emerged to pick up where the assassinated King had left off. They directly confronted the police abuses within the African-American communities and sought to address the poor housing, schooling and high unemployment rates. Throughout the film, the revolutionary icons of the era are prominently displayed in home and work environments. Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba and Angela Davis inform viewers of the personalities that shaped the thinking of the time. Draft resistance, protests against the Vietnam war and the Panthers’ stance against unjust law enforcement were all merged into the larger anti-imperialist struggle. This multilayered defiance was posited as a microcosm of a globally relevant contestation of power and morality. Gerima delves into this unified reality – the war waged on people of color in a foreign land, and that waged upon people of color locally.
Much of the movie centers on the contentious dialogues between the intellectual revolutionaries, who meet to theorize about these affairs, and the Vet who lived the reality of the war and has scars rather than theories. That he had to relinquish his ability to reason and act independently and be reduced to the most brutal instinctive acts of survival is part of his enduring pain. It also speaks to the larger, dehumanizing tragedy of war.
A powerful character in Ashes and Embers is the Vet’s grandmother. Her appearance, perhaps with the director’s intent, immediately evokes the famous Elizabeth Catlett linocut, The Sharecropper.
Shots of this elder’s arresting visage were spliced with scenes from her grandson’s journey of return to her pastoral dwelling. The images slipped in and out of view in a haunting sequence that synced perfectly with Zulema’s American Fruit, African Roots. The film would go on to reveal that from war there is no true return. The cinematography and score forced viewers into the pain and disorientation of combat. We sweat with the veteran through the terror of his nightmares and waking visions, through his constant recollection of the war. Everywhere that he looks, every sound and every scene take him back to Vietnam. We feel the strain as he reaches out for his wife and son but can no longer relate to them, and the heartsickness as they can no longer relate to him. These painful domestic scenes were the only points from which flashbacks were a happy relief from current reality, indicating to the viewer that the family was once whole.
Sleeping on a public bench, the Vet has an encounter with another homeless man who at first appears to him as a West African high priest, coming to offer him wisdom.
“… the chant of a madman, in this tale from a strange land
Give me the chant of the madman, Lord, it’s the only salvation”
– David Rudder, Madman’s Rant
Gerima took time to depict the many social issues faced by combatants returning from war – the money they could end up owing to the government; struggles to maintain employment through their mentally disturbed state; the lack of help to cope with their illness; the inevitable escape through permanent sedation, such as alcohol and drug abuse. Viewers were fed a crushing visualization of PTSD through an array of visual and sound distortions. How does one survive when familiar territory becomes a war zone? Homeland can no longer exist because the war is within you, the first homeland – your body and mind. The Vet said that he only wanted peace. How can you find peace when your mind itself is an unsafe space to inhabit?
One of the most unforgettable scenes of Ashes and Embers occurred after the Vet attempted to please his grandmother by attending church with her. He had a public breakdown that was difficult to look at. He left the church, enraged, and ran through the woods. In his mind he ran through the war-ravaged forests of Vietnam. I felt my head swim as his pointless, tragic odyssey ended in the earth spinning. First the viewer looked down at his feet dangling above a patch of green grass, then up, past the long, swiveling rope, to the tree branch above his head. For the first time in my life, an artist had taken me into the mind of a person being lynched. The point of view was not that of the violent mob, neither was it that of the murderer, nor that of the voyeur, but rather I saw through the eyes of the person grasping the last moments of his life.
“In 1966, the Pentagon admitted that “proportionately more Negroes have been killed in Vietnam ground combat than other Americans”” (Bloom and Martin 127)
Bloom, Joshua and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Print.