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Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s first and only film effort is reborn

By Lorraine M. Blackwell/Contributing writer
On November 8, 2015

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis starred in the 1976 Delta Sigma
Theta film.

In 1973, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. set out on an unprecedented mission to make a Hollywood style motion picture. 

“Countdown at Kusini,” was released in April 1976 at the end of the Blaxploitation Era – a time when Black action films often criticized for negative depictions of Black women were extremely popular. 

It was during this time that the international sorority, with a membership of 100,000 predominately Black women, wanted to see themselves portrayed in more favorable on-screen roles. Lillian P. Benbow, the president at the time, led the effort to make a film with a positive female lead. 

In the film, well-known actress and Delta member Ruby Dee portrays an African freedom fighter that lures an American jazz musician into the struggle for the liberation of her people. 

It was shot in Lagos, Nigeria, and also stars Greg Morris, of “Mission Impossible,” as the musician, and veteran actor Ossie Davis, as the rebel leader.   

“This was a bold move as a sorority, African American at that, deciding to be an executive producer or producer of a film. It had never been done before,” said Bishetta Merritt, Delta member and retired Howard University film professor.

“THE KUSINI CONCEPT: The Pride & Sabotage,” will be screened Saturday at Sankofa Books & Videos, located at 2714 Georgia Ave NW at 7:30 p.m.

Produced by Howard film professor S. Torriano Berry, the documentary examines how the film’s built-in formula for success was undermined by the distributor and blocked from becoming the financial triumph the Delta’s envisioned.

“The film was not in theaters long enough to be supported,” said Berry. “It was only in general release for a week or two before the distributor pulled it, shelved it and sold the rights to the cable network HBO.”

The sorority had planned to screen the film in each of its chapter cities. 

“The big plan for distribution was to use the resources of the sorority to support the distribution of the movie,” said Betty Smith Williams, former national treasurer of Delta Sigma Theta, in the documentary. “When chapters were preparing to release the film in the cities and get the theaters full of people, the persons with the distribution responsibilities made a plan and just released the film within the cities without the coordination that would have been important to make it successfully four-walled.”

The making of “Countdown at Kusini,” once a source of tremendous pride for the Deltas, quickly became a failure and an embarrassment that many younger members are unaware of and some older members refuse to discuss, according to Berry.

In 1999, he interviewed Davis and Delta Sigma Theta’s Jean Noble for his book, “The 50th Most Influential Black Films.” No one even knew what had happened to the film.

“I tracked down a 16 mm print housed in a private collection,” said Berry. “It’s in good condition, with some color fading, but overall it’s a good print.”

He hopes to generate renewed interest in the film among the sorority’s members. April 2016 will mark the 40th Anniversary of the film’s release.

“It’s time to regroup and recoup. The Deltas now have the two things they were denied in 1976; the time and the control they need to make the four-wall process work,” said Berry. “For the 40th anniversary, each chapter can sponsor screenings that will finally allow its membership, family and friends to support this historic effort. And, now that the organization’s numbers have doubled to over 200,000, they can not only recoup their initial investment, but turn an even bigger profit today.”

Admission for the screening is free, but donations will be accepted. For more information, contact 202-234-4755 or 202-243-9779 or

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