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“Sankofa” Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)

"Sankofa" Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film 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” Screening series runs until December 17, 2011 at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit:

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Movies rarely ever portray slavery accurately.

Susie Alston?Onawa Kachina Pleasures

I'm all the way in NJ, but would love to see this film. Is there anyway I can view this film?


@urbanauteur: Thanks for your comment and suggestion. Ripstein and Johnson…mmm, I'll give it a thought :-)


BRAVO!.. one of my all time favorites…its a shame, this auteur should be cranking out films(however quietly) on a distance coast like Igmar Bergman did on his (own) island.


This film makes my heart go pitter patter. I've seen it twice and still don't understand why it's so unknown to the general public. I envy you, Nijla, for having been in a class with Mr Gerima. I'm from the Netherlands. We don't get opportunities like that.
I've actually been working on a script-turned-novel with a related subject matter. It's about an African chief and slave hunter who, once enslaved and shipped off himself, builds a nation of rebel slaves in the Amazon jungles of 18th century Suriname (Dutch-Guyana). Not sure how the novel will fare among readers, but as Benjamin said, let's hope more folks will dive into these tales of resistance. Personally, I'm tired of being fed that dish of helpless Africans.

benjamin snyder

Great article homie, as an HU Alum and student of Haile's Thirld World Cinema class as well it pleases me to see Indiewire post this on their website. Sankofa was a film ahead of it's time, and will continue to be a gem for individuals around the world. Now if we can get more brothers and sisters to create narratives that display the same content and value, will definitely move in the right direction. Great job Nijla!


Great review of a great film (& filmmaker).


Haven't seen it yet, but I own it on DVD along with "Ashes and Embers" and "Adwa: An African Victory". Gerima is an amazing filmmaker who hits straight for the gut and the mind. He isn't concerned with traditional narrative structure or appealing to those who want accessibility. He is one of the last truly great filmmaking legends alive, and I hope he makes another film again someday with the same size and scope of his masterpieces "Harvest: 3,000 Years" and "Bush Mama".

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