By: Niki Wilkes
The critical reception of the 1993 film Sankofa, especially from those with an academic interest in the field of slave narrative studies, has made it a significant member of slavery film canon. To teach a film study class on slavery without including Sankofa would be like teaching a nineteenth-century British Literature class without mentioning Jane Austen. Over its twenty years of existence, the film has sparked both conversation and controversy, most of which surround the concept of “sankofa” and whether Gerima’s exploration of the topic can transcend his intended audience to give a commentary on contemporary global issues related to slavery.
Sankofa is the story of an African-American supermodel named Mona doing a photo shoot in Ghana who is sent back in time by an angered African holy man to experience slavery so that she can better understand her forgotten roots. The film’s director, Haile Gerima, explores through her journey an ideology called sankofa, which means, “to retrieve the past to move forward” (Dorsey par 1). This film has a particular interest in exploring how the characters actively pursued the ideals of sankofa. Through Mona’s character, the audience sees the benefits of this idea by experiencing her fear-turned-admiration for the African holy man, which was Gerima’s way of portraying the change he wanted African Americans to make in regards to appreciating their heritage and understanding their roots.
Critics such as Noah Berlatsky and Caryn James found this transformation to be a powerful one, well-represented in the film. Mona starts out, as James explains in his article, “dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blond wig,” evidently showing the audience that she has lost all ties to her past, despite being in her home country (par. 3). Berlatsky goes on to point out in his article, “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today,” that Mona’s fear of her past is made more evident when they go to the castle and Mona encounters the holy man for the first time. This occurred just after the beach photo shoot scene where a white photographer is making explicit commands to “let the camera do it to you.” Despite the evident sexual objectification, Mona runs to hide behind the photographer when the holy man frightens her with the message of sankofa in a language she does not understand. Berlatsky also points out that when she enters the past, she denies her heritage by shouting “I’m not African. I’m American” (1). This is a stark contrast to the end of the movie, where Mona symbolically shows the level of her transformation by listening and approaching the drumming of the holy man and ignoring the voice of the white cameraman (Berlatsky 2). This is a powerful expression of sankofa’s transformative property, which was intended to shock African-American audience members so that they would begin to strive to understand their roots. For other viewers, who may not have that direct heritage, Mona’s journey still shows how truly diving into the pain and suffering of past slave victims makes returning to the life of blissful ignorance impossible.
Nijla Mumin also praises the film for the work it is doing to give the audience a new type of narrative. She explains that, unlike most films about slavery, Sankofa has no “white savior.” The concept is common in slave stories where the slave must be saved from captivity by a benevolent member of the non-slave class. According to Mumin, Gerima removes slaves from “out of the one-dimensional, passive, ‘victim’ role, and embodies them with complications that manifest in active resistance, personal conflict, and compelling stories” (par. 3). This idea is supremely important to the concept of sankofa because it requires the person to take an active role in reclaiming themselves.
Sankofa gives audience members the other side of a slavery narrative, which shows how a slave can regain his or her agency. Deeper than that, however, is that the film shows that we are all connected to the roots of slavery. Gerima focuses on African slavery in the Americas, but Mona’s journey can figuratively be our journey as well. Slavery has touched every corner of history and the globe, meaning that we are connected to the institution in one way or the other. We can be both ancestors of slaves and slaveholders. We can also be possible victims or current perpetrators of modern slavery. Films like Sankofa show us that being directly and powerfully exposed to the harsh realities of slavery is sometimes the only way to wake us up. While we will never be forced into the extreme circumstance of Mona, many of us are personally shocked into advocacy by past narratives of slavery. We must look back to move forward.
Berlatsky, Noah. “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Sep. 2014.
Dorsey, John. “Sankofa: Past Is Prologue.” The Baltimore Sun. n.p., 28 Sept. 1995. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
James, Caryn. “Sankofa (1993) Review/Film; Reliving a Past of Slavery.” New York Times. 8 April 1994. Web. 14 Sep. 2014.
Mumin, Nijla. “Sankofa Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)” Indiewire. n.p. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.
In "Sankofa," a contemporary African-American woman travels back in time and experiences slavery. Haile Gerima's poetic and precisely detailed film takes its audience into its heroine's life and mind as her moral sense is challenged and changed. No viewer can avoid the discomforting questions the film so eloquently raises.
The opening sequences, set and filmed in Ghana, are alternately seductive and off-putting. Among drums and chants, a voice invokes ancestral ghosts. "Spirit of the dead, rise up," the voice says, "and claim your story." The film's title is a West African term meaning to reclaim the past in order to go forward, and "Sankofa" stumbles only in its depiction of the present.
Mona is a young model first seen posing for a callous white photographer on a beach. She is dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blonde wig. This is a heavy-handed way of showing that she has lost her connection to her past, that slavery still shapes her life as she is enslaved by contemporary images.
But the film soon moves on, convincingly, to a surreal experience. Mona wanders into a dungeon, a holding place from which slaves were shipped to the United States. She has walked into the past, where she is stripped, chained and beaten. Suddenly she is on a plantation, a house slave called Shola, with no memory of Mona or the 20th century.
The longest and finest part of "Sankofa" is its depiction of the daily life of the slaves and the way witnessing its brutality changes Shola. She falls in love with a rebellious field slave, who urges her to poison her white owners. Shola refuses. Though the master rapes her at will, she believes killing is wrong, no matter what injustice has been done to her.
But Shola soon sees a pregnant runaway slave beaten to death, her living child taken from her body. And she idolizes Nunu, a strong and motherly slave who has joined the rebels.
Nunu's son, Joe, is the head slave, who has an easier life and seems to have turned against his own people. He is blue-eyed and in the thrall of the white priest, and his story should have been as compelling as Shola's. But his character is less convincing, partly because his tortured sense of identity is so often depicted by sudden mood swings and glances at paintings of white Madonnas in church.
Shola, however, (played with great strength by Oyafunmike Ogunlano) carries the audience into the heart of her experience. When she lifts a machete over a sleeping white overseer, the film has led its viewers to a place where either choice -- to kill or not -- might be justified. "Sankofa" asks its audience to enter a different moral universe, one that slavery created.
Mr. Gerima is an Ethiopian-born film maker who has lived in the United States for decades and teaches at Howard University. His film is ambitious in its depiction of slavery and accomplished in its visual command, from the bright red scarves of the rebellious slaves to a fire they set in the fields.
"Sankofa" opens today at the Harlem Victoria 5 Theater. Engrossing and provocative, it sends Shola back to the present as Mona, and sends viewers along with her. Armed with visceral new knowledge, she can make of it what she will. Sankofa Written, directed and edited by Haile Gerima; director of photography, Agustin Cubano; music by David White; produced by Mr. Gerima and Shirikiana Aina; released by Mypheduh Films. At the Harlem Victora Five Theater, 235 West 125th Street, Manhattan. Running time: 125 minutes. This film is not rated. Mona/Shola . . . Oyafunmike Ogunlano Shango . . . Mutabaruka Nunu . . . Alexandra Duah Joe . . . Nick Medley Father Raphael . . . Reginald Carter Noble Ali . . . Ofemo Omilani Sankofa, the Divine Drummer . . . Kofi Ghanaba Juma . . . Hasinatou Camara