Whatever happened to Countdown at Kusini?

The Stone Center’s Annual Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film kicks off on September 23 with a special screening of filmmaker S. Torriano Berry’s The Kusini Concept, along with a screening of Countdown at Kusini, one of the most important productions in Black film history. Rarely seen since Columbia Pictures shelved it in 1976 and forgotten by most, the screening on September 23 will be the first time it has been screened in over thirty years. The screening will take place at 4 pm at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill.

In the early 70’s, at the height of the so-called Blaxploitation movie era, a Black women’s organization took on the task of challenging stereotypes that were common fare in films of that time. In fact, the representations on screen of Black women, men, and the Black community at-large were so limited and misrepresentative that it was difficult to find images that did not immediately summon up the most persistent stereotypes. Common complaints from this period were aimed at the entire universe of Black characters that typically populated Hollywood productions and reinforced preconceived notions of Black criminality, endemic poverty, and general lack of morals. At the same time, images of Africa were almost all negative with the entire continent often presented as politically chaotic, culturally deprived and socially.

Although Black activists had always raised these issues, it was the unique response of a Black sorority that captured the attention of moviegoers and suggested that traditional self-reliance and ‘do for self’ attitudes could effectively combat the traditional lack of redeeming characters on screen.

In 1973, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a sixty-year-old Black women’s sorority whose charter emphasized service and cultural awareness, began production of Countdown at Kusini, a film destined to change perceptions about the role of film images in reconstructing community and consciousness. Conceived as a counter to the prevailing imagery of Black people and Africa, it featured a screenplay by pioneering Nigerian filmmaker Ladi Ladebo and performances by icons Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, along with Greg Morris of Mission Impossible fame. The film is recognized as the first to be financed and produced by a Black women’s organization.

Despite good intentions, the Deltas were not able to successfully navigate the sea of problems they faced in distributing and marketing the film and the partnership with Columbia proved to be more of a problem than a solution. Very quickly the film faded from theaters and was basically forgotten.

Berry, who completed his documentary on the making of Countdown at Kusini while teaching at Howard University, was able to address many of the questions that had been left unanswered after the demise of the film. Through interviews with key members of Delta Sigma Theta, Ossie Davis, and others associated with the Countdown at Kusini, he is able to provide new insights into the higher calling that motivated the members of the sorority, and the workings of Hollywood that ultimately undermined the film and relegated it to the archives.

Countdown at Kusini and The Kusini Concept will both be screened at the Varsity Theater on September 23 at 4 pm. The Theater is located at 123 E Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27514. The screenings will include appearances by documentary filmmaker S. Torriano Berry and conversations with a panel that includes members of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., Black film historian Charlene Regester along with moderator and filmmaker Natalie Bullock-Brown.

What to learn more about the film? Click here for references regarding Countdown at Kusini.