SANKOFA (1993, U.S./Ghana, 124 min.), directed by Haile Gerima; screenplay by Haile Gerima; produced by Shirikiana Aina and Gerima; cinematography by Augustin Cubano; edited by Gerima and Aina; music by David J. White; production design by Kerry Marshall; with Kofi Ghanaba (Sankofa), Oyafunmike Ogunlano (Mona) Alexandra Duah (Nunu), Nick Medley (Joe), Mtabaruka (Shango), Afemo Omilami (Noble Ali), Reginald Carter (Father Raphael), Mzuri (Lucy).
an Akan word that means, "We must go back and
reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came
to be who we are today." Written, directed and produced by Ethiopian-born
filmmaker Haile Gerima, Sankofa is a
powerful film about Maafa--the African holocaust. Done from an
African/African-American perspective, this story is a vastly different one from
the generally distorted representations of African people that
THE MAKING OF THE FILM:
To complete their magnificent movie
on slavery--which was filmed at the former slave castles in Cape Coast, Ghana--Shirikiana Aina and her husband, Haile Gerima, pleaded for
foundation grants, bartered for plane tickets, lodging and crew, and charged
supplies on their credit cards. They
finished the film, Sankofa (which means "going
backward to move forward" in Akan, a Ghanaian
dialect), last year for less than $1 million. That challenge ended up being the
easy part. After endless showings at film festivals around the world, the
producers couldn't get a distribution deal and were in debt. So Aina and Gerima, who are also
MAKING THE MOVIE : "We applied for every film grant from
organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller
Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation. We then approached the Ghanaian
government about filming in their country. They allowed us to do it in exchange
for lifetime rights to show the film in
"RISING TO THE TOP ": Out of desperation, we organized a screening
for the community people in
--Deborah Gregory, Essence, Sept. 1994
FILM AND FILMMAKER:
From: Black Film Review, 1994, Vol. 8 Issue 13
A RETURN TO THE PAST
Earlier this year, Sankofa won a
jury prize for cinematography at the Festival of Pan African Cinema and
Television. For the movie, Gerima used a narrative style that occasionally borrows
from the documentary genre. Tony Stafford, film executive, has said that Gerima's work "smash(es) the tenets of polite naturalism... [and]
eschews traditional genre distinctions between fiction and documentary."
Ironically, given the enduring popularity of
As much as the Video Soul X Generation
may hate to admit it, history has taught that there is much to be learned from
the past. Not just the glory years everyone likes to romanticize about. You
know, the noble days when everyone and his neighbor was a king or queen. Or the
radical 60s when everybody had a shotgun, a beret, and a
leather jacket, and marched in the streets with Huey. I mean those in
between years. Those years, those hundreds of thousands of
years that fell somewhere between the
One might consider these points while viewing Haile Gerima's latest feature length film, Sankofa. The theme of returning home is a recurrent one in Gerima's films, particularly this one. "Sankofa" is an Akan word that means "to return to the past in order to go forward." Told from the perspective of a Eurocentric Black woman condemned to re-live slavery, the film is a story about self awareness and a journey home in search of pan-African consciousness.
Early in the film it becomes clear
that Gerima, who is Ethiopian, is employing a
familiar genre--the slave drama--to subvert conventional assumptions about
identity, race, and class within our own society. Gerima, who wrote,
directed, and co-produced Sankofa with Shirikiana Aina, agrees the film is less about slavery, per se, than a
commentary on contemporary sociopolitical dynamics. He says he wanted to use
“slavery as a landscape" to bring into sharper focus the issues African
Americans need to address today. "I see the contemporary echoes of the
past," he says. "If you look at
"I think the role of the
artist," Gerima says, "is to interpret
those realities--in a very, very sensitive and unique way--that daily re-visit
a certain society." Gerima charges that
says he made Sankofa
to raise consciousness; the movie isn't a couch potato's silver screen T.V.
substitute. "I am not a court jester; I'm not out to entertain
people," says Gerima. "I don't degrade
myself by telling you I made Sankofa to entertain you. I made it to make you think."
It's no revelation that those with the greatest economic interest determine what scripts get produced and distributed, and who gets to make them. Robert Staples has estimated that Blacks, and other people of color, buy 38 percent of all movie tickets and that 97 percent of entertainment profits go to European-Americans. In a 1991 study, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found that, "No Black executive makes final decisions in the motion picture or television industry, [and] only a handful of Afro-Americans hold executive positions with film studios or television networks."
also charges that
"I think the industry backs
young people who are not the real intellectual, cultural, artistic products of
the Black community. The Black community has always had a conflict,
historically, as I observe it, [where] white
The films these movie marionettes
make, Gerima says, perpetuate the same Tom n' Jemima
Clearly, Gerima intends for Sankofa to expand the boundaries of Black representation in ways that include more diverse, realistic, and empowering images and, in turn, enable Black audiences to see themselves in new ways that are divorced from dominant images.
Gerima reminds one of a street corner minister preaching the gospel to passersby and possible converts. His arguments are not without merit. But without a congregation, a regular pulpit, and, lord knows, a collection plate or two--in short, without the institutional support needed to spread his message to a wider audience--his converts will be few. Gerima himself knows this. Therefore it should not be surprising that he advocates the re-creation of an independent Black film industry. For although Gerima doesn't believe Hollywood-made movies can challenge us to re-think power relations, he says he doesn't believe the industry and "the system" are omnipotent. Rather, he places the responsibility for recuperating Black images where he says it belongs: in the Black community.
Some critics have argued that it is
necessary to have both independent Black cinema and
Not that we didn't have an independent film industry before. Recalling
an earlier period, Gerima
points out that African Americans allowed
Now the situation is reversed.
Before we can accomplish this, he
says, we must divest ourselves from the cinematic standards that have been set
Specifically, what Gerima is calling for is a low budget film culture that is informed by minimalism. For example, during the making of Sankofa, when he realized additional money would not be forthcoming, Gerima couldn't pay his film crew the wages he wanted, couldn't employ certain color dissolves and special effects, and an entire section of the film had to be cut. He also had enough money to make only one print of the film. Despite these sacrifices, Sankofa, and other low budget films, demonstrate that it is possible to abandon the slick, glossy Hollywood aesthetic in favor of one that speaks more directly to the needs of Black people.
African Americans would embrace such a film culture, Gerima says, if mobilized by our
cultural and political leadership. "When a film comes out (critics) are
there to review the film. Very sad, because to me (the
critics') role should always be on a continual basis. People
who write about film should always be there, alert, activating the
community--even in the absence of films. It is the making of a movie, creating the
conditions to have more movies being made within the Black community,
that makes the community be activated. Similarly, organizations like the
NAACP, instead of begging
For Gerima, Sankofa--which
he considers to be "a turning point and an amalgamation" of
everything he has done to date--represents his own consciousness raising
experiences and "homecoming." The son of an insurgent Ethiopian
playwright, Gerima did a stint in the Peace Corps,
which he calls his period of ,(volunteer
colonialism," before coming to the
He carried this radical sentiment
into UCLA, where, as a film student, he began researching and writing Sankofa. Throughout the 70s and early 80s Gerima wrote (and rewrote) the script, and traveled to the
Thus far, Sankofa--Gerima's
eighth feature length film--has been shown in
Interestingly, white Americans in
Finally, and perhaps more important
to Gerima, people of African descent also are
claiming the film. Gerima was moved to tears as he
recounted stories of how Black people were embracing the film. For example, after
a screening of Sankofa in
Gerima says the approximate 20 years it took to make Sankofa, with the resulting struggle and sacrifice, would not have been worth it, "if there hadn't been a community of people who said, "Okay, you made this film. You brought it here and from here we will take it." Things like this make you say, "I'll make my next film, too. I'll regroup." What makes you want to make another film is the way [your films] materialize at the end. The feedback, the embracing is what repairs you."
E. Assata Wright is a free lance journalist in Washington, D.C.
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