SANKOFA (1993)

  • Director: Haile Gerima
  • Writer: Haile Gerima
  • Starring: Oyafunmike Ogunlano, Kofi Ghanaba, Alexandra Duah, Nick Medley, and Mutabaruka 
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, shown at 1993 Berlin Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix

What I knew about Sankofa going in is that it was about slavery, and I have to confess that I found myself kind of dreading it for that reason. It is obviously an important historical atrocity that people definitely should make movies about, but I tend to find most movies about slavery a slog to sit through, because many of them turn into one terrible thing happening to people after another. That is not to say that isn’t an accurate reflection of what slavery was actually like, but it is also not a description of the kind of movie I’m going to seek out.

Yet I found that Sankofa was at the very least less of a chore than some of those movies I was just talking about, which I would attribute to the way it is more interested in these enslaved people as human beings than it is in just depicting the atrocities they suffered. I mean, the atrocities are definitely included. There’s a long scene, for example, where one of the characters is whipped, but the movie mostly doesn’t show the actual whipping, instead focusing on the face of both the person being whipped and the distraught enslaved person who is being forced to do the whipping. It spends quite a bit of time on the relationships between the enslaved people, and has a lengthy subplot centering on the conflict between christianity and traditional African religions, all of which I found pretty interesting.

I also should probably mention that there’s time travel involved? I think? Oyafunmike Ogunlano plays Mona, an African-American model who does a fashion photoshoot at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, apparently not realizing it was used as a departure point for enslaved people being taken to the New World. She is confronted by a drummer in traditional face paint (identified as “Sankofa” in the credits and subtitles), played by Kofi Ghanaba, and then when she wanders down into the depths of the castle she finds herself back in Colonial Africa, stripped down and branded despite her protests that she’s “not an African!” Then most of the movie is the same actress as an enslaved house servant somewhere in the Southern U.S. named Shona, never mentioning that she is from the future. At the end of the movie, after participating in a slave rebellion, Mona returns to the present day, where we also see that a woman who had run away and was thought by those on the plantation to have died (Alexandra Duah) is also there in the present day in Ghana. There is no actual explanation of any of this, but it makes a sort of thematic sense within the narrative, I suppose.

Unusually for a movie that received an international release, Sankofa was produced by independent distributors from Ethiopia, and cast primarily with actors either from West Africa or the Caribbean. Its director, Haile Gerima, had been born in Ethiopia, but emigrated to the US at age 18 to study theater (his father had run a theater in Ethiopia). Gerima ended up going to UCLA film school at the same time as filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Julie Dash, and had become an independent director, widely known in some circles at least, who then decided to return to his roots to direct a movie about the African diaspora. I have actually attempted multiple times to add his American film Ashes and Embers to my viewing schedule for this site, but have been frustrated because it’s apparently not available to stream anywhere, whether for rental or as part of a subscription, or on DVD. Amazon lists the VHS tape for sale for $74.99 plus shipping, somewhere after multiple pages of terrible-looking romance novels.

Anyway, this movie both starts and ends with the drummer chanting “Spirits of the dead, rise up!” and clearly has a theme regarding the importance of staying connected to one’s roots. Sankofa feels, more than anything, like an attempt to make that connection between African-Americans and their African ancestors. And while I found it enjoyable, it is also a movie that is very much not “for” me. Which, you know, not everything has to be.

I watched the movie with subtitles on regardless, so I’m not sure if some of the dialogue is subtitled. If not, it might be very difficult for many viewers to understand, given that much of it is presented with very thick period accents. Meaning that many of the characters talk the way those characters actually would have talked at the time, not in the greatly modernized way one sees in many other films on this subject. Even with the subtitles, I found myself having difficulty recalling who was who among the different characters and what their relationships were to each other. This is because, when that transition happens from the present day to plantation times, not only is the transition not explained, the movie doesn’t really take a lot of time to explain all of these new characters it just throws at us. There’s a major plotline involving a conflict between one of the characters and his mother, and it took me most of the movie to realize what exactly their relationship was, because if the movie explained it, I missed that.

Sankofa is not your normal movie experience, but that’s usually a good thing. I will say that, even though it does a better job of focusing on what it feels like to actually be enslaved than most movies on these subjects, it doesn’t mean that it ever transcends, for me, that feeling of being homework. This is art, and meant to be taken that way, but whether it actually works as a movie I will leave to you to decide.

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