Newsletter: FT weekend
Get a piece of weekend inspiration with the best in life, art and culture. Delivered every Saturday morning.
Last Sunday I did something I rarely do. I was watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon. Usually I save the pleasure for the night, a little indulgence before bed. But what I watched was Sankofa, a 1993 film by Ethiopian-based Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima, who casually believes that films ‘should haunt the audience into their bedrooms’. I have never been able to watch in the dark movies about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I need daylight as a kind of armor to carry the horrors, and to give myself time to resolve the feelings of these films regularly.
Made after 20 years of research, and self released by Gerima 28 years ago, Sankofa is part of film history. It was created at a time when few filmmakers told stories of the historical period of slavery from the perspective of the slaves. Now, with the collaboration of Array, the independent distribution company owned by director, producer and screenwriter Ava DuVernay, it has been digitally restored and released on Netflix at the end of September.
The film follows Mona, a contemporary African-American model, as she participates in a photo shoot at the site of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a fort where Africans were captured before being forced into slavery to the new world. Her character is frolicking on the castle grounds and playing playfully and provocatively on the shores, seemingly ignorant of the historical significance of the place.
While Mona later explores the castle, she is taken back in time and surrounded by captive slaves. She tries to run, only to be met by slave traders who force her back into a venue and mark her. She cries that she is American, not Afrikaans, that there was a mistake. But she is taken to a plantation, somewhere in the New World, which is apparently a mixture of the American South and West Indies, where her life as a domestic slave – now under the name Shola – becomes the focus of the film. .
It is a story about the varied, traumatic experience of slavery and the resistance and revolt of a small group of slave characters. These men and women are constantly trying to maintain a semblance of humanity, agency and identity.
After watching the movie, I went a long way to clear my head. I tried to understand why this story of slavery was so powerful to me. Aside from the beautiful cinematography – golden colors stretched across vast landscapes that contrast with the green of the fields and grasses – it is clear that this is a story told by someone who has invested in the politics of storytelling.
The film undoubtedly has an Afrikaans aesthetic. Gerima lets his characters speak the Akan language from Ghana, even on the plantation, and the slaves from West Africa bring the gruesome reality of life into the new world with traditions and stories from their homeland. And there is no white savior in this movie. It focuses on the resilience and resistance of the slaves.
But what really struck me was the central idea of the film. Mona’s character had to go back to the past to experience a moral and ideological shift that would help her better understand and deal with the personal and socio-political aspects of her existence in the modern world. There were things that happened to her ancestors, stories she had to acknowledge and receive before she could have a more informed relationship with herself and with people in her own world. When she returns to the present time, we see that she is a different person, with a new, more self-actualized way of being.
We are often told that the past is the past, and should not remain silent about it. Even today, there are those – politicians, academics, ordinary citizens – who are not reminded of colonialism and slavery. The suggestion is that these things happened a long time ago with people we did not even know, so it has little to do with our own daily choices, lives and realities. Or that the challenges (and atrocities) of the past would emerge would only cause more disagreement.
And yet, the landscape of our collective and individual past can be the key to understanding our present lives. This can be scary and dangerous because we do not always want to see the kind of things our people can do to each other. What we do to others and what is done is for us.
“Sankofa” is the name of a mythical West African bird. In art, the bird is depicted with its feet forward, but its head turned backwards. In its mouth it holds an egg which it has retrieved from behind. Sankofa is a word in the Akan language, and it apparently has several translations. From “It’s not taboo to pick up what’s the risk of being left behind” to “Go back to the past and bring what is useful.” As Gerima’s film suggests, we give ourselves the best chance to shape our individual and collective future as we look to the past and take the valuable.
Enuma Okoro is a New York columnist for FT Life & Arts
Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out more about our latest stories