It never ocurred to me that the 2007 drama, Pride, which starred Terrence Howard, Kimberly Elise, Bernie Mac and others, was directed by a Zimbambwean filmmaker named Sunu Gonera. Film blogging wasn’t anything I was doing at the time, and I think was more focused on filmmaking, so I don’t recall if I ever bothered to find out who directed the film, or if I did, but didn’t do any further research on his name to find out that he was an African man.
It’s not exactly often that black African filmmakers are helming Hollywood studio movies, so I figured this one deserved mention, since his name really hasn’t been mentioned on this blog – well, once, about a year ago, but more as a footnote (he was one of a handful of writers who helped pen the script for a South African AIDS drama titled Inside Story, which we profiled when it was premiering at the Pan African Film Festival in LA last year).
Gonera’s filmmaking story is a short, but interesting one, as my research shows. Pride was his first feature-length directorial effort, which makes it all the more remarkable, because, again, it’s not often that black African filmmakers are helming Hollywood studio movies; and more significantly, first-time black African filmmakers.
Gonera was born in Zimbabwe, where he attended a private school, thanks to a scholarship as well as his athletic abilities, which opened doors for him, including another scholarship to the University of Cape Town, where he got a degree in Psychology. He went on to have a successful career in banking, and eventually decided to take on his dreams of acting and making movies, working his way up pretty quickly apparently, starting out making commercials, winning awards for his work for clients as Nike, VW, Coca Cola and U.S Tennis Association to mention a few.
He eventually made a short film titled Riding with Sugar in 2005, and it screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. And it was in that same year that he beat out more seasoned Hollywood directors and landed his first full length feature directing assignment with Lionsgate – the film we know as Pride.
Soon after that, Sunu sold his home in South Africa, and moved his wife and kids to Hollywood. Unfortunately, that move hasn’t proved successful for him (since Pride, according to his IMDB page, he’s co-produced an animated feature titled The Lion of Judah, which was released by Warner Bros. He didn’t direct it; just produced. And that’s pretty much his only highlight in the last 5 or so years since Pride). I immediately recall my piece of the plight of black directors in Hollywood; I should’ve put him on that list, if I’d remembered him at the time.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Sunu has gone back to South Africa, where a filmmaking industry continues to blossom, prosper and fare well on the international cinema stage.
Sunu plans to not only get back to directing commercials again, which is what he started in, he also plans to direct his second feature film, which is based on the short film that helped launch his Hollywood career, Riding with Sugar, later this year.
Riding With Sugar was actually original a feature film project, but he made a short version of it in 2005, likely hoping that, with the short version, he’d be able to raise funds for the feature. It looks like, 7+ years later, he may finally get the chance to direct the film as a feature.
Gonera is said to now be based in Cape Town, South Africa, his Hollywood dream seemingly on hold. Let’s see how he fares now that he’s back home.
There’ve been a handful of high-profile black South African films that have traveled internationally in the last few years (we highlighted them on this blog), so maybe his options there are better than they were 7 years ago. Besides, he hasn’t had much luck here, in the USA – at least, not the kind of career he probably hoped he’d have, after he moved his family to Hollywood to make Pride.
Luckily, I was able to track down the short film version of Riding With Sugar, and it’s embedded below, so check it out, and see what helped Sunu (in part) snag the Pride directing job.