Sankofa, which in the Ghanaian Akan language means roughly “to retrieve,” starts with a model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogulano) posing for a photoshoot at a castle in Ghana. A drummer named Sankofa loudly declares that this castle was an infamous part of the slave trade and warns Mona that she has strayed too far from her African roots and must return to them. Mona goes into a trance, during which she is transported to the past and back to America, where she is promptly captured by White slave owners. She protests that she is of American rather than African descent, but her cries fall on deaf ears. She has inhabited the body of a slave named Shola and soon she is thrust into the brutal world of pre-Civil War America.
Shola undergoes physical and sexual abuse while witnessing similar atrocities happening to the other slaves on the plantation. Indeed, the subjugation of Black women is a predominant theme of Sankofa, and perhaps one critique of this film is that women do not necessarily have as much agency as the men do. Yet the slaves are not merely faceless victims, but individuals with distinct traits and personalities. Shango (Mutabaruka) is a West Indian slave who was sent to the plantation for causing too much trouble at his previous plantation. Joe (Nick Medley) is the child of an African-born slave Nunu and a White slavemaster and is forced to inflict punishment on other slaves. Director Haile Gerima’s portrayal of the enslaved is a direct rebuke of any notion that Blackness is homogenous.
Gerima’s obsession with what Blackness means and rooting it in protest art is not surprising considering his artistic and personal background. Gerima was part of the LA Rebellion, a group of Black filmmakers who attended UCLA. Gerima, along with filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Jamaa Fanaka, would create films that not only were boldly experimental but would also make Blackness the center of nearly all of their works. They freely took from many influences while coming up with narratives that had never been seen before in American cinema. Gerima’s 1979 feature Bush Mama was clearly influenced by neorealism and the French New Wave in its cinema verite style, yet was also about a community that a White, European filmmaker like Godard would never have access to and would never truly understand.
Many of the Black Rebellion filmmakers struggled to make their projects even among the arthouse crowd, and it wouldn’t be until the 1990’s that some would find some mainstream success. But you wouldn’t necessarily be able to discern this struggle from Sankofa, which is expansive and ambitious. Yet, despite its grand, sweeping scope, it may be Gerima’s most personal film and the one he feels the most ownership over. It was the result of over 20 years of research into the transatlantic slave trade and was funded exclusively by Gerima’s own production company and the Ethiopian government. Sankofa brims with ideas and storylines that it can barely contain. While it sticks mostly to the slave plantation for the majority of the film, Sankofa wants to comment on Blackness throughout history, which it does through its soundtrack, which ranges from electronic music to jazz to spirituals. At times, Sankofa flirts with afrofuturism in terms of its story and its approach to how Blackness is seen as alien and how diaspora is central to it.
Despite its technical innovations, Sankofa’s real strength is its emphasis on the simple, but powerful technique of storytelling. Gerima uses storytelling to express the longing for identity and belonging among people who have little else. Storytelling features prominently throughout Sankofa, whether it is the slaves telling stories to each other as a form of gossip and bonding, or Mona’s voiceover, which provides some framework for her story of self-discovery and rejection of colonial ways of thinking. Storytelling can also have a profoundly negative effect, as it is with Joe, the half-White slave. A priest tells him that Joe must be Christian and that his fellow Black people, including his own mother, are of the devil. What Joe does to his fellow slaves is reprehensible, including counting the lashes that one of them gets. But Joe is also a tragic figure, whose self-hatred is so concrete that we can see him physically resisting the narrative imposed.
The relative anonymity of the actors to general audiences really works in this film’s favor. Most films that have dealt with slavery that are made with White filmmakers often cast well-known White actors that audiences have a natural sympathy for. Often, the story focuses on the benevolence of the White men rather than the enslaved. Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a notable example, mainly because it was made around the same time as Sankofa and also because the Black actors barely had any dialogue and considerably less characterization than the many, many White actors did in this story. In Sankofa, because the White actors are anonymous, it is much easier to realize how prevalent racism is and that benevolent White people shouldn’t be the heroes of a story centered on slavery. Gerima gives so much depth to his Black characters that we are caught up in their world and can feel the oppressiveness of their environment, while also feeling their longing for freedom.
Sankofa is so dense with story and characterization that even one review can’t really dissect what Gerima is doing. Ultimately, it’s nothing less than about the whole African diaspora, which of course is rooted in centuries of tragedy and violence. Yet there is an intense hopefulness that underlies this film. There is pride in the diversity and vibrancy of the many different people who were enslaved and forced to find new communities and identities in a strange, hostile land.