Sankofa is an Akan word meaning roughly, “We must go back and reclaim our past in order to move forward.” Haile Gerima’s cinematic rendering of this is perhaps one of his greatest filmmaking achievements. Screened as part of the UCLA L.A. Rebellion Film Series, “Sankofa” follows Shola, a black model who is transported back to a West Indian plantation after participating in a fashion shoot on shores of the slave castles in Ghana. Shola becomes a house slave alongside Shango, a militant Maroon fieldhand and love interest who resists her early warnings to ignore the brutalities committed against others on the plantation. Sexually abused by the plantation’s owner, Shola is drawn to Nunu, an African-born fieldhand and Maroon leader, who ignites her eventual rebellion.
As a student in Howard University’s MFA Film Program, I took a class with Haile Gerima, called Third World Cinema. In it, he challenged many of our notions and beliefs about filmmaking, especially when it came to telling stories about people of color. One of those challenges was to scrutinize black “stock” characters in American films, or those black characters that had no back-story, but were just there to uphold white characters’ place or status. He presented a number of films where this type of black character existed- “Casablanca,” “Gone With the Wind,” and even Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life.” All are classic Hollywood films, but they position the black body as one of complete servitude. There exists no richness or complication within these characters.
Gerima encouraged us to break and subvert that paradigm. To create black characters that were rich with inner turmoil, who resisted, struggled, who sought intimate relationships, and who possessed sensuality. It is on this foundation that “Sankofa” rests. One of the film’s most revolutionary contributions is Gerima’s portrayal of enslaved people, not slaves. They are people struggling with love, loss, denial, and guilt. He takes them out of the one-dimensional, passive, “victim” role, and embodies them with complications that manifest in active resistance, personal conflict, and compelling stories.
In one scene, headman Noble Ali, played by Afemo Omilami, expresses his love for Nunu and she lightly rejects him, saying, “Don’t wait for me. I can’t be with no headman.” There is humor here, but there’s also pain as he shows deep remorse for aiding in the abuse of fellow enslaved people. This scene unpacks a character who could be easily labeled a “villain” in another film. But in this scene, we experience the inner conflict of a person who is forced to exact violence on his own people, while harboring a certain internal violence and pain for those actions. That violence inhibits his ability to form a loving relationship with another person. This is as heart-wrenching as it is grounded in the history that Gerima spent over 20 years researching.
Another important element of the film lies in its aesthetic and visual associations. There’s a continual presence and framing of the land and the character’s relationship to it. Close shots of Shango’s eyes through the green sugarcane stalk evoke a oneness of the black body to land, and of the land. A coexistence of power and ultimate universality is furthered. A low-angle shot of Shola standing amidst the cane stalks with a machete in hand exalts her to that of authority in this environment, and invites the viewer to see her as such. In one of his more daring but resonant sequences, he juxtaposes and equates images of Virgin Mary and Christian saints to Nunu, an African woman of profound wisdom whose son, the product of rape, becomes submerged in waves of self-hatred and religious fervor encouraged by the presence of the church.
When it was released in May 1993, Gerima embarked on an unprecedented distribution and promotional model that helped make it one of the most financially successful black films to date. Propelled by grassroots organizing, community support, and packed theaters, Gerima championed an alternative, highly successful route to independent film distribution outside of the studio system. And in light of recent films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” I hope we look back to “Sankofa” for its audacity to humanize and re-envision a people in a layered, complicated narrative form.