My Streaming Gem: Why You Should Watch Sankofa | Movies
I saw Sankofa for the first time fifteen years ago, as part of a university course on the African diaspora. For years afterwards, I talked about it whenever I had the chance, which wasn’t often, because in all that time I had never met anyone outside of that class who had even heard of it. Unlike many other forgotten masterpieces, the film was never so difficult to track down – you could buy a VHS or DVD copy with relative ease, and there were versions of it to stream if you knew where to look (the legality of said streams is another matter) – yet until very recently it remained largely unknown outside of black academic/sociopolitical circles (which should by no means be ignored).
Although it garnered acclaim, as well as multiple awards, when it first aired on the international festival circuit in 1993, Sankofa never saw widespread distribution until last September, when Netflix and Array, the company distribution company founded by director Ava DuVernay, have released a stunning new 4K restoration of the film on the platform and in select theaters. Before that, Ethiopian-born director Haile Gerima – who emigrated to the United States in the late 1960s and became a member of what would become the LA Rebellion school of black filmmakers – self-distributed his film, booking showings in independent cinemas, bookstores, libraries and colleges.
Despite the academic nature of said cast (not to mention my own introduction), watching Sankofa never feels like a must. While it’s often as disturbing as one would expect a film about the African Holocaust and chattel slavery to be, its story arc is just too thrilling, its mystical and emotional force too engrossing. , to one day turn into what we now like to call ‘trauma porn’.
The film begins with a haunting preface, in which Sankofa (Kofi Ghanaba), an African drummer covered in white paint from head to toe, invokes “the spirit of the dead”, summoning the ghosts of slavery – “from Brazil to Mississippi”. …Jamaica…the fields of Cuba…the swamps of Florida…the rice paddies of South Carolina…” – to “own your bird of passage…get up…go out and tell your story.”
The film correctly opens in present day, on a seaside castle off the coast of Ghana. Covered in brilliant white sunshine, we watch locals and tourists moving about, soaking up this slice of seeming paradise. But beneath the postcard-ready idyll lies a history steeped in blood. As we quickly discover, this castle was built as a fortress where slave ships were loaded and sent on their journey through the Middle Passage.
It is in this sacred place that we meet Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), an African-American model using the castle as a backdrop for a sex photo shoot alongside her white photographer partner. Their disrespectful presence enrages Sankofa, the self-proclaimed “guardian of the castle”, so he casts a spell on Mona that puts her into a trance and sends her back in time to the days of slavery. Running through the bowels of the castle, she is beset by the resurrected ghosts of dozens of captive African men, even as she is pursued by white slave traders. She shouts that she is “not African”, but in vain. She is quickly captured, stripped, branded and chained.
Suddenly, we are transported to a plantation in the southern United States. Mona is now Shola, a housekeeper and cook born into slavery (the disjointed nature of this psychic and temporal shift gives the film a Lynchian quality that makes it all the more puzzling and compelling). Through Shola’s running narration, we get the lay of the land – the plantation is owned by the cruel Lafayette family, whose patriarch regularly rapes and beats it – and are introduced to the other characters who fill what is now a drama with ‘together. The film takes its time to detail the characters’ universe, but it doesn’t just focus on the routine atrocities of slavery. Instead, it pays as much attention to moments of communal joy, kinship, and spiritual practice, as well as the individual desires and dreams of its characters.
As Sankofa ends on a note of spiritual regeneration and redemption, at its center beats a heart of dark transcendence, the most fascinating of its narrative threads belonging to Joe, whose religious mania, combined with his antagonistic relationship with his mother, mutual but unconsummated lust as a fellow slave and the guilt of his daily betrayal of his people sinks him into the kind of all-consuming madness one expects of a Werner Herzog protagonist. All the while, Sankofa builds up to its apocalyptic climax, one of the most cathartic sequences of violent retaliation and calculation ever to film.
As heartbreaking as it is, Sankofa is also legitimately beautiful, thanks in large part to the gorgeous cinematography and bold camerawork. It’s hard not to compare Gerima’s work to that of his peers – the bold formalism and constant breaking of the fourth wall, combined with the ubiquitous orchestral jazz score courtesy of David J White, can only make one think of Spike Lee; while the poetic voiceover and jaw-dropping take on nature (which the film itself pokes fun at via a belated meta-joke about magic hour lighting) are instantly reminiscent of Terrence Malick – but given that he directs since the early 1970s, he’s been given as much credit for style originality as any of them.
At the time of the film’s release, Sankofa had more in common with literary works centered on the African Holocaust – particularly those with a magical, realistic bent, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred on the same theme and Toni Morrison’s Beloved – than the beautifully produced prestige images that come out. of Hollywood (or, for that matter, the slave exploitation movies that played the grindhouse circuit in the 1970s). In the decades since, more and more films have approached slavery from similar speculative perspectives, including the flawed but admirably faithful adaptation of Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, the entirely ill-conceived horror dud Antebellum and Barry Jenkins’ limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. But none proved as alluring or haunting as Sankofa.
Now that it’s finally widely available, on the world’s largest streaming platform, the film will likely find the audience it deserves. While it’s frustrating that it took so long, it’s also fitting, given that the word Sankofa, translated from the Akan Twi and Fante languages into English, means “return and get it.”