Nijla Mu’min looks back at Haile Gerima’s film Sankofa for Shadow and Act:
“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 as part of the UCLA L.A. Rebellion Film Series, “Sankofa” 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…”