african-american directors series: sankofa (haile gerima, 1993)

Sankofa is a passionate film about slavery in America that, like the novel Kindred, uses time travel to place a woman from modern times back into the horrors of the old South. Sankofa is complex ... it's about more than "slavery is bad". As writer/director Haile Gerima states, "This isn't a film about slavery. It's about the untold history of black people and our resistance." While Gerima doesn't shy away from showing slavery's brutalities, he never resorts to the kind of exploitation porn that gives audiences a chance to enjoy what they simultaneously claim to reject.

He tells the tale of an American fashion model, Mona, shooting in Ghana, who is transported back to the times of plantation life in America. Gerima purposely refrains from an exact explanation for what happens to Mona, but there seems to be a connection between her posing for a white photographer and the disapproval of a black elder who thinks Mona is denying her heritage. (This is shown when Mona is captured by slavers ... she keeps insisting, "I'm American! I'm not African!") The details of the plot don't make a lot of sense ... Mona ends up as a slave named Shola whose doesn't have memories of Mona (unlike the heroine of Kindred, who knows her "modern" self when she is transported back in time). As the film progresses, we see that the black people strive to retain their own culture in the midst of slave life in America.

In Sankofa, contemporary black Americans must connect their present to their past, not in the name of victimhood but in the name of resistance. In our time, white America still gets to choose how our historical narrative is presented. Sankofa draws a different picture of the past, leading the way to a more accurate history and a present with more possibilities.

Gerima does his own editing, and it is effective in making connections when the plot is doing other things. Agustín Cubano does the beautiful cinematography. The acting is heroic and inspiring throughout, especially Oyafunmike Ogunlano as Mona/Shola. Sankofa was recently named by Slate as one of 75 films comprising the New Black Film Canon.