By choosing to tell a relatively small story about slavery in the Americas, Ethiopian writer-director Haile Gerima is perhaps better able to evoke slavery's horrors than the makers of grand epics like television's "Roots." SANKOFA succeeds, on both a personal and a political level, because
of the immediacy with which it conveys human suffering.
In contemporary West Africa, a traditional drummer invokes the Spirit of the Dead and asks the audience to listen. We see Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), a fashion model, being photographed at an ancient fort which was once used as a dungeon for slaves. An older man accosts Mona, compelling her to
go "back to your past." Later, while exploring the fort, Mona sees a group of slaves in chains around a fire. When she runs back outside, she finds that she has somehow been transported to the past. She is captured and left with the other slaves.
When we next see Mona, she has become Shola, a house slave on an American plantation. In a voice-over, she tells the audience that she was born into slavery. She is in love with Shango (Mutabaruka), one of the field slaves who talks of killing the white slave owners. We also meet Nunu (Alexandra
Duah), who is the spiritual center of the slave community. Born in Africa and still spiritually connected to her mother country, Nunu is revered, especially because she once killed an abusive overseer merely by staring at him. "Someday," Nunu tells Shola, "we will fly in the air and be home."
Nunu's son Joe (Nick Medley) acts as a foreman, a slave who does the overseer's bidding. Joe is torn between his devotion to Christianity and his mother, who is defiantly African. When a group of slaves, including a pregnant woman, attempts to escape, he is forced to whip them. The pregnant woman
dies, but Nunu is able to deliver her baby. At the moment of the child's birth, Shola has a brief flashback to her other life as Mona.
Becoming more integrated into a secret society of rebellious slaves, Shola runs away, but is quickly caught and whipped by the master. Shango comes to her during the night and gives her a wooden Sankofa bird which he has carved himself. The next day finds Joe, more tortured than ever, running
off to the river. Nunu follows him and tears a pendant of the Virgin Mary from his neck. In a rage, Joe kills her, then remorsefully brings her body to the church. When the priest reacts to this "sacrilege," Joe kills him as well. Shola explains that the church was then burned by the owners,
killing Joe, but that no trace of Nunu's body was ever found. She speculates that a bird came "to fly her back to Africa." Later, the slaves stage a rebellion, during which Shola kills the master. As she runs away, the film returns to the present and Mona walks out of the castle. Obviously changed
by her experience, she joins a group of black tourists watching the ocean.
Despite its magical framing sequences and flashbacks, Sankofa works best on the level of (often grim) realism. Gerima, well aware of Hollywood's tendency to represent slaves as interchangeable black bodies, takes care to individuate his characters. Each of the four main figures is fully fleshed
out and supplied with a history, while the supporting characters display a variety of accents and cultural traits, reflecting the disparate African origins of slaves who were thrown together willy-nilly on American plantations (the white characters, by contrast, are one-dimensional; all are shown
as heartless oppressors). Among the actors, Duah stands out: as the exuberant Nunu, she is entirely convincing as the soul of a complex community. The elements of magical realism are sometimes confusing--it's never made clear whether Mona and Shola are meant to be different or are simply aspects
of the same character--and the imagery, which stresses birds and the sound of whips, is a bit heavy-handed. Nevertheless, Gerima's attempt to forge links between the African past and the contemporary black Diaspora resonated with audiences worldwide, particularly in the US, where enthusiastic
African-American audiences made it the longest-running black-themed art film since Julie Dash's 1992 cult hit, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST. (Nudity, sexual situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: By choosing to tell a relatively small story about slavery in the Americas, Ethiopian writer-director Haile Gerima is perhaps better able to evoke slavery's horrors than the makers of grand epics like television's "Roots." SANKOFA succeeds, on both a perso… (more)