While on a photo shoot in the site of a former slave castle, a self-absorbed African American model is magically transported back to a Jamaican plantation where she experiences the realities of slavery first-hand. Having experienced a slave revolt and joining a maroon colony, she returns to her present-day life with a deepened connection to her past, and a renewed sense of racial solidarity.
Sankofa (1993), like its Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima, is important both in African and African American cinema history. One of the few internationally known Anglophone African filmmakers,1 Gerima was a member of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers (also known as the L.A. Rebellion Film Movement) along with Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, and others.2 The movement, which emerged from UCLA in the 1960s–1980s, is characterised by the filmmakers’ loosely shared set of pan-African political commitments and by their shared desire to create cinema outside the conventions and influence of classical Hollywood cinema, and without using the Hollywood studio for financing. In Gerima’s case, this has often meant serving as producer, writer, director and editor of his own films. Though their political commitments and filmmaking styles are diverse, so much so that any summary is necessarily also a distortion and partial misrepresentation, The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers emerged at the heady moment when the mainstream US Black Power movement had become broadly internationalist and anti-colonial.
Reflecting these internationalist politics and a desire to forge common links between Africans and African Americans, Sankofa is, on one level, a period piece, filmed primarily in Jamaica and Ghana, that depicts US slavery. This film represents Gerima’s efforts to use ‘cinema’s devastating capacity to colonise … in a way that projects one’s own human story – without apologies’. 3 The film opens with an African American model, Mona, being photographed on location at a Cape Coast slave castle in Ghana, one of the sites through which Africans who had been captured or sold passed before being enslaved in the New World. Because Mona clearly does not appreciate the significance of this site, Sankofa, the Divine Drummer, confronts her with the need to respect the sacred site of the slave castle. Abruptly, she is soon thereafter transported back in time. The castle fills with chained Africans who look directly at Mona and, through her point of view, the audience. She is transported back across the Atlantic Ocean and through centuries into the past where she is enslaved by whites who no longer recognise her as American and who rename her Shola. Most of the film details the process by which her understanding evolves and she begins working toward freedom.
The bulk of the film takes place in the past, and it is to a large extent a recognizable cinematic representation of slavery. Sankofa is distinct, however, insofar as it focuses on the experience and point of view of the African rather than salvation – religious salvation for the whites who repent their ways and physical salvation for the slave delivered from slavery,4 or other concerns that minimise slavery.5 It is also unique insofar as it focuses on the daily life of slavery, and the ways the enslaved understood their own condition. The film depicts rape during the middle passage and in the present, and offers an unflinching view of the forms of psychological and physical discipline deployed, as when slaves are murdered or made to flog each other under the threat of death. Unlike other films about slavery, individuals are not redeemed through their individual acts of heroism, but collective acts of resistance. The triumph at the end of the film is Mona/Shola’s becoming a rebel leader in her own right, then returning through the ‘Door of No Return’ in Cape Coast castle, finally recognising herself as part of a broader community of people in the African diaspora. Using a contemporary African American woman as the focus of its story, the film’s power comes in the present transformation of this ordinary woman through the power of storytelling so visceral it becomes an experience in its own right.
Though the film features an unsuccessful slave revolt, it has less in common with blaxploitation-era’s revenge fantasies 6 than with such Cinema Novo films as Carlos Diegues’ Quilobmbo (1986), which similarly seeks to excite present audiences to reconsider their historical connections. Though the film is set in the southern USA, one of the rebellion leaders, Shango, is from the Caribbean. His name, which he shares with the god of fire, lightning and thunder in the West African Yorùbá pantheon and with Xangó in Caribbean and Latin American pantheons, itself symbolises the preservation of African heritage that survived or was reconstituted in the New World. The emphasis on the autonomous community, African retentions, and Mona’s revised understanding of herself as belonging to a larger pan-African community are the film’s ultimate theme, related to the L.A. Rebellion Film Movement’s desire to create new, ‘decolonised’ images of black life.
In simplest terms, the film targets audience members of African descent who, having known nothing else, accept their present living conditions and misconceptions. Even within the film’s diegesis, having been born a slave makes it easier to accept being a slave. But the aim of the film is not just information, but witnessing slavery and its effects, and establishing a kind of communion with the dead. Witness, however, is not just visual. The first word spoken diegetically is ‘listen’, and characters throughout insist on the incantatory power of the word, and of storytelling. The word ‘sankofa’ itself is an Akan concept: ‘We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today’. Without that practice, which in the film is fundamentally ethical, we are bound to repeat that history in the specific sense of those filmmakers Gerima criticises for remaking films without even realising their films are remakes.7 Thus, the project of Sankofa is not so much an adequate representation of slavery than the ethical responsibility to remain aware of slavery – to bear witness to slavery – and to reconstitute the lines of commonality among people of the African diaspora.
Though the ostensible topic is slavery, the film doubles as a broad allegory of the process of decolonisation as in part a process of recovering one’s lost heritage. The film is one of the few to depict not only the immediate terror of slavery, but the long consequences of slavery’s brutality, especially rape. Joe, the child born of Nunu’s rape on the slave ship by a white man, is the male counterpart to Mona within the film. However, whereas she is unaware of her African heritage, Joe actively rejects it in the hopes of gaining favour from the whites who have enslaved him. He is the embodied spirit of the Middle Passage’s physical and epistemological violence: a Christian who sees his suffering as a guarantee of future salvation, a slave struggling to be perceived as a man rather than a beast, a man not sure whether he is a child of God or a ‘heathen Guinea woman’, Nunu. He cuts himself off from the traditions that sustain the other slaves by his racial difference and by his desire to appease whites and assimilate into white culture, though even he eventually falls out of favour.
Read uncharitably, Joe’s character is not only at fault for failing to recognise his heritage, but also for his racial impurity. He knows where his ancestors are from, but rejects Africa in favour of Christianity, and the respectability and personal salvation it promises. While viewers are clearly supposed to identify with Mona, the rebellious Shango and the saintly Nunu, Joe is irredeemable. He eventually kills both his mother and Father Raphael in a church, ensuring that he has no descendants. His plot line is the most complex and ambiguous in the film: Joe is as much an embodiment of the Middle Passage as Mona. Through those characters, the film tacitly suggests that all descendants of slavery are the descendants of rape, but only the female characters are able to overcome that legacy and locate themselves within a larger African diaspora community.
Joe’s character may be read as an example of the psychological strain of oppression and cultural assimilation, a figure that tries to navigate two worlds and ultimately chooses the oppressors, in contrast with Mona/Shola who ultimately chooses the oppressed. This choice is the key. Through it, Sankofa is unlike other films about slavery. The resolution is not the individual’s freedom or integration into society, nor is it the martyrdom of the rebellious slaves. The film ends with Mona having come back through the Door of No Return, facing an uncertain future alongside other Africans on the beach. One might here detect in this film the influence of revolutionary Martinican psychologist Frantz Fanon who (along with Guinea-Bissauean leader Amilcar Cabral) was a key intellectual figure for the L.A. Rebellion Filmmakers. For Fanon, the roots to oppression lie partially in the psyches of the oppressed who mistake historical relationships for natural ones. Decolonisation for Fanon, and Gerima, lies in more than the end of formal colonial relations, but in removing mental colonisation as well. For Sankofa suggests, decolonisation is an ongoing process that must first begin with recognising that one is colonised.
1. Manthia Diawara makes this claim in African Cinema: Politics and Culture, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992. The emergence of Nigerian ‘Nollywood’ films – films primarily produced using digital cameras and distributed either direct-to-video or electronically primarily to Nigerian and Nigerian diaspora audiences, complicates his claim. Nollywood extends the independent ethos of filmmakers like Gerima without imagining the theatre as the ideal screening site. Still, though Nollywood has come to name the third largest national film industry in the world (behind the US and India), consumers tend to become more invested in serialised stories than individual filmmakers.
2. Ntongela Masilela provides an in-depth analysis of the ways the filmmakers sought to ‘find a film form unique to their historical situation and cultural experience, a form that could not be appropriated by Hollywood’, and helpfully locates the movement within a milieu informed by the Black Arts Movement, the Black Panther Party, African Marxism, politically engaged European cinema and Third World Cinema. See his essay ‘The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers’, in Manthia Diawara (ed.), Black American Cinema, New York and London, Routledge, 1993, pp. 107–17.
3. John L. Jackson, Jr., ‘Decolonizing the Filmic Mind: An Interview with Haile Gerima’, Callaloo, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter 2010, pp. 25–36.
4. One might think here of contemporary films such as Stephen Somers’ The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993) and other films such as The Adventures of August King (1995), Amistad (1997), or Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2007), where slavery provides a litmus test – or occasion – for white characters’ moral development.
5. For example, films like James Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris (1995), Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1997), Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003), or Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (2005) use slavery either as an occasion to reflect upon US history and ideology, or as an incidental backdrop to a love story.
6. I.e. Richard Fleisscher’s Mandingo (1975), which depends on its representation of interracial desire more than anything, its sequel Drum (Steve Carver, 1976), or the Mondo Cane film Addio Zio Tom (Jacopetti and Prosperi, 1971), a ‘mockumentary’ that links slavery’s graphic violence and exploitation to Black Power ideology and urban rebellions.
7. Jackson, ‘Decolonizing the Filmic Mind’, p. 31. To counteract this tendency, and other unconscious effects of colonialism, Gerima translates English sources into Amharic then back, bringing the film closer to an oral, decolonised perspective.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Germany, UK. Production Company: Mypheduh Films (Coproduction with the Ghana National Commission on Culture, Diproci of Burkina Faso, NDR/WDR Television and Channel 4). Director: Haile Gerima. Producers: Shirikiana Aina and Haile Gerima. Screenwriter: Haile Gerima. Cinematographer: Augustin Cubano. Editors: Haile Gerima and Shirikiana Aina. Music: David J. White. Cast: Oyafunmike Ogunlano (Mona/Shola), Alexandra Duah (Nunu), Nick Medley (Joe), Mutabaruka (Shango), Afemo Omilami (Noble Ali), Reginald Carter (Father Raphael), Kofi Ghanaba (Sankofa, the Divine Drummer), Hasinatou Camara (Juma).]
Sylvie Kandé, ‘Look Homeward, Angel: Maroons and Mulattos in Haile Gerima’s Sankofa’, trans. Joe Karagnis, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 128–46.
Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.
Mark A. Reid, Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now, Oxford, Rowan & Littlefield, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.