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Haile Gerima’s 'Sankofa' Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)

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by Nijla Mumin
January 14, 2013 5:40 PM
4 Comments
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"Sankofa" (1993), directed by Haile Gerima

EDITOR'S NOTE: The retro is being rebooted for runs in Philly, Toronto and New York through February. Over the next few weeks, we'll be revisiting our reviews/write-ups/interviews on the series (from Brandon Wilson and Nijla Mumin) when it begun in Los Angeles over a year ago... here's another. The overview and complete lineup speak for themselves, so click HERE to head over to the home site for the series.

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 this weekend as part of the UCLA L.A. Rebellion Film Series at the Hammer Museum, the film 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 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 as we await 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.

The "LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema" continues to travel the country, with stops scheduled for PhiladelphiaToronto and in NYC; so those who live in those cities, you're strongly encouraged to make an effort to attend.

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4 Comments

  • Bee | January 21, 2013 5:39 PMReply

    Great post! I especially appreciated your brief discussion of the headman who would generally be deemed the "uncle tom" character. Sankofa has always been one of my favorite slavery-themed films, and now I'm eager to see it again. On a side note, it's pathetic that all the folks commenting on Django didn't have enough interest to comment on this post about Sankofa.

  • QBN | January 21, 2013 7:04 PM

    The thing is.. it's a great film, but it's also very painful.. I myself have to be in a certain frame of mind to watch movies like that. With Django, I knew I was going to see the Black man triumph and kill a whole lot of evil White folks. That's a hell of a lot more appealing on a surface level than the awful intricacies of slavery.

  • getthesenets | January 21, 2013 6:06 PM

    I own Sankofa...have attempted to loan it out to several people.

    Nine tmes ot of ten, they return it having not watched it....saying it was too difficult to watch complete film .

    Same people who sent me emails advising me to go check out Django, which is interesting to say the least.

    At least none of them tried to go all Dick Gregory on me "this is the best film..yada yada..I didn't know shackles left scars..and other garbage". They at least knew better than that.

  • TK | January 14, 2013 6:18 PMReply

    This was a brilliant analysis of Sankofa. I love that film I've seen it countless times and the story never gets old or weary.

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