Haile Gerima's sweeping, powerful "Sankofa," which in the African language of Akan means returning to the past in order to go forward, opens in the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, an ancient fortress where slaves bound for America were kept in chains. While a group of tourists visit the site, a photographer snaps away at a beautiful African fashion model named Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano).
Suddenly Sankofa (Kofi Ghanaba)--an older man in native robes who communicates with the spirits through his drums--appears, decrying the white tourists for invading a sacred place and zeroing in on Mona, ordering her sternly to "Get back to your past!" Unnerved, Mona retreats into the castle's ground floor--only to discover herself part of a group of slaves soon to be transported to a plantation in the American South.
The Ethiopian-born Gerima, best known for "Bush Mama"--his 1976 portrait of an impoverished woman living in Watts--has brought a distinctive style and an often raw but always authoritative command of his medium to confront the horrors of slavery and its persisting significance, perhaps as no other filmmaker has. The bold, dramatic manner in which Gerima sweeps Mona back into the past signals that what's to come will be both different and dynamic.
Operatic in style, "Sankofa" brings to mind Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" in its use of highly theatrical tableaux, of rituals, of traditions of African storytelling and of its sense of the supernatural--in this instance, recurring images of birds, symbolic of flight as well as life and death. "Sankofa" unfolds as a kind of oratorio--the film's music in itself is incredibly rich and intoxicating--in which people deal with terrible cruelty through ritual and incantations of the African gods. It is a celebration of the strength of black people, in drawing upon their spiritual roots, to defy their oppressors--past and present alike.
Gerima's stylized approach is crucial because what he presents is so luridly familiar: a white plantation overseer forcing slaves to beat, even to death, other slaves; couples and families cruelly, arbitrarily separated; slaves receiving terrible punishments for daring to run away. Less usual but certainly apt is Gerima's blunt indictment of the white man's use of Christianity to exploit and control slaves.
In the course of the film a number of individuals come to vivid life. There's Alexandra Nuah's fearless, loving, matriarchal Nunu; Mutabaruka's Shango, determined rebel beloved by the initially fearful Shola, the slave woman Mona has become; and Nick Medley's tormented Joe, the mixed race Christian torn between his allegiance to his Christian god and to the other slaves, in their suffering. From these actors and many more, Gerima has elicited vibrant, impassioned performances, and Ogunlano's transformation from Mona to Shola (and back) is impressive in its wide-ranging emotions and perceptions.
Gerima and his film are emblematic of how important it is for people of color to tell their own stories, which is not to deny that a number of significant films about blacks have in fact been made by whites. But so much of the African experience is horrific to the point of absurdity that it takes a strong African aesthetic, steeped in cultural and spiritual awareness, to evoke from it a sense of the tragic rather than the merely melodramatic.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: There are graphic depictions of brutality toward slaves, some nudity and a cinematic style too complex for pre-teens.
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'Sankofa' Oyafunmike Ogunlano: Mona/Shola Mutabaruka: Shango Alexandra Duah: Nunu Nick Medley: Joe Kofi Ghanaba: Sankofa, the Divine Drummer A Mypheduh Films release of a Negod Gwad production in co-production with the Ghana National Commission on Culture, Diproci of Burkina Faso and NDR/WDR Television in association with Channel 4. Writer-director-producer-editor Haile Gerima. Cinematographer Agustin Cubano. Music David White. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* Exclusively at the United Artists Del Amo, Fashion Square Mall, Torrance, (310) 542-7383, and the United Artists Cinema in the Villa Maria Marketplace, 4335 Glencoe, Marina Del Rey, (310) 823-3959.